December 14, 2019

iMonk Classic: The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism (2)

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism, part 2
A classic Michael Spencer iMonk post from Nov. 2008

NOTE: On Sundays in Lent, we will run these classic essays from Michael Spencer on the evangelical wilderness.

I am continuing my series on the unresolved tensions of evangelicalism. Today, I want to explore disillusionment with Christian experience.

 

2. The Disillusionment of Christian Experience

Evangelicalism makes confident claims about the religious experience of its true believers. It is not hard to conceive of disillusionment when those claims are judged to be untrue.

It’s a well known saying that a person with an experience has nothing to fear from a person with an argument. This is certainly true in the area of religious experience. Millions of evangelicals have been brought into and kept in evangelicalism by its claims of religious experience.

While various segments of evangelicalism promise various kinds of religious experience with various degrees of certainty and various attending methods, it’s still a fact that there is a common “offer” of experiences such as “the joy of the Lord,” “God speaking” and answered prayer.

Religious experience for evangelicals carries major weight because it is the guarantee that God will show you that the evangelical message is true. It is important to evangelicals that the Catholic claim to miracles be countered with many examples of answered prayers, supernatural provisions and miraculous interventions.

Evangelicals also value personal testimony, and personal testimonies are reports of personal religious experience. Without dramatic stories of supernatural events and proofs of God’s power, evangelicalism sounds hollow. From Baptists saying they’ve been born again to Charismatics claiming to hear and see angels, evangelicals produce high-octane religious experience non-stop.

Is anyone surprised that any assessment of the demise of evangelicalism would blame a failure of religious experience to sustain belief in the God of evangelicalism?

And is anyone surprised that evangelicals are quite adept at explaining failures of religious experience and at providing religious experience through the use of technology and talent?

Evangelicalism has predictable stock responses to the failure of religious experience: human beings are sinful, God is sovereign, we live by faith, the Holy Spirit works differently with different persons, the experience of exemplary Christians shows many examples of a dearth of certain religious experiences.

At the same time evangelicalism promises the guarantee of religious experiences it also has a strong critique of those experiences and a ready explanation for a lack of religious experience.

I believe that evangelicals are well aware that the subject of religious experience is one that can expose a world of contradiction, confusion and disappointment. If there is one commonality among the “testimonies” of former Christians, it is the loss of confidence in their own religious experience as certain and foundational. The abuse of religious experience among some extreme charismatics obviously leaves the door open for disillusionment and bitterness at manipulation.

Accepting religious experiences as evangelicals tend to do requires a very generous and affirming attitude in the absence of proof. Those telling the report must be trusted. Pastors and teachers are trusted. Christian celebrities and leaders are trusted. Publishers, authors and Christians on the internet are trusted.

And you must trust yourself as you report your own religious experience. Trusting all of these people is easy for some Christians, and very difficult, even impossible, for others. Once a person approaches religious experience with a critical, skeptical attitude, the way they hear and interpret experiences will change. Of course, there will be “concern” that a person no longers believes in what they previously accepted as trustworthy. There will be arguments and answers. But in many cases, evidence won’t “convert” the doubter or the questioner. They will conclude that what they see and hear has better explanations elsewhere.

For example, what happens when a person doubts whether God actually answers prayer in the way they were taught? What if a person begins to doubt the truthfulness of many of the testimonies they hear? (I’ve heard so many outright lies and scandalous exaggerations in testimonies I can barely stay in the room.) What happens when a person begins to doubt the confidence people have that God is speaking to them? Or that the healings claimed are true?

What happens when the promises of leaders that God-proving religious experiences will absolutely follow certain events, music, meetings, speakers and responses are doubted or rejected?

What happens when when a suffering Christian does not experience promised miraculous interventions, but further suffering?

While some readers may have an arsenal of answers for these questions, the fact is that evangelicals have “loaded the gun” of the disillusioned and handed the weapon to him/her.

I believe millions of evangelicals have left over these issues and millions more will move either entirely out of Christianity or away from evangelicals to forms of religion that do not make the extravagant promises of religious experience.

Comments

  1. A customer came into the market (where I wotk) and was talking to me about “breakthrough”. She was a Calvary Chapel ‘ite’.

    I couldn’t (might get fired)…but I wanted to tell her that the only “breakthrough” she was going to get was when they threw the dirt on her face.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Calvary Chapel has always struck me as a distillation of all that can go wrong or sour with American Evangelical Christianity. (Nothing I could put my finger on and say “Aha!”, but a general aura of “Look fair and feel foul.”) And Calvary Chapelites struck me as more Moonie than the Moonies in the Starry-Eyed True Believers department, thoughstopper mantras and all.

      Apparently a lot of “testimonies” about spiritual abuse at Calvary Chapels has started to surface; there’s even a dedicated website called “Calvary Chapel Abuse”.

      P.S. Never mind John Galt, Who Is Lonnie Frisbee?

      • I’ve heard mixed things about Calvary Chapels…both good and bad. I briefly tried one in Alexandria, VA but didn’t get too involved in it. I only went to one service to get a feel. This was back in 2005, 2006.

  2. Healing is one of those ‘experiences’ that produces tremendous disillusionment. God heals. It occurs today but this whole phenomenon of healing, not by request mind you, but by demand, has made formulaic our relationship to God. I don’t have a good answer for it but Benny Hinn and all of his ilk are selling, and I mean selling, an experience. It’s a shallow business.

    • Adrienne says

      ChrisS ~ I so agree with you. The arrogant “by demand” type of “christian” thinking has done great harm. Accompanying it is always the “if you had more faith” guilt trip. It divides Christians into castes – and leaves great suffering and disillusionment in its wake.

      “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” Jesus. I haven’t seen alot of this in Evangelicalism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In religion, the spiritual power/being is the one in charge.

        In Magick (Crowley spelling with a K), it’s the mortal who commands the spiritual power/being.

      • My Dad just had surgery for a brain tumor. This is going to be a rocky road for my family and I. My Dad is being discharged from the hospital and the next step is chemotherapy and radiation. I really don’t have much of any faith…however if some fundy comes along and tells me that the tumor is the result of sin in my Dda’s life or that he need’s to have more faith. I can’t tell you how tempted I am to break his nose.

        These problems seem to be unique to evangelicalism….

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I really don’t have much of any faith…however if some fundy comes along and tells me that the tumor is the result of sin in my Dad’s life or that he needs to have more faith…

          Never mind breaking his nose, that’s grounds for punching him in the junk. Even more so than handing out Chick tracts to trick-or-treaters or tipping an underpaid waitress with those fake $100 bill tracts.

          These problems seem to be unique to evangelicalism….

          There are a lot of Job’s Counselors out there, and a lot of them do seem to cluster in Evangelicalism.

          I’m reminded of the experiences and reactions you related that happened to you on 9/11/2001.

    • Martin Romero says

      And that is what many groups use to promote themselves in different countries. Don’t know the situation in the USA (I live in the UK) but I recently spent 4 months in Argentina and there is a particular church who broadcasts on the radio during the whole day and has a considerable presence in TV, and all they show is healing and prosperity.

      Basically, my life was a total disaster, but after I started attending the church and made my “sacrifice” (which, from what I understood, it means that I gave some money to them), everything became perfect, have got a new business and car and my disease disappeared. Of course, don’t forget to come and touch the blessed tunic and buy Abraham’s holy water.

      And if you look at their doctrinal statement it sounds nearly the same as any other evangelical church… So, some seem to say, don’t criticise them because they’re basically one of us. Sincerely, I think that many are willing to overlook many things as long as the doctrines sound all right, as if they were some type of test about who is a real Christian and who isn’t.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Basically, my life was a total disaster, but after I started attending the church and made my “sacrifice” (which, from what I understood, it means that I gave some money to them), everything became perfect, have got a new business and car and my disease disappeared. Of course, don’t forget to come and touch the blessed tunic and buy Abraham’s holy water.

        i.e. When I made the proper Magick and greased the right Palm…

        (Just like the end of Facing the Giants!)

        So, some seem to say, don’t criticise them because they’re basically one of us. Sincerely, I think that many are willing to overlook many things as long as the doctrines sound all right, as if they were some type of test about who is a real Christian and who isn’t.

        That’s how that aberrant “Christian Fellowship” that messed up my head (and probably others) during the Seventies was able to fly under everybody’s radar. Their theology was perfectly-parsed End Times Evangelicalism, but their behavior was overcontrolling and borderline-abusive.

  3. Just a few miles down the road was a church sign that for weeks read “Pray until something happens.” With his teeth clenched Michael would groan “That is the exactly the problem right there.”

    I once tried to explain that the Experiencing God program by Henry Blackabe actually discouraged its followers from thinking the experience was the key thing. Moses had ONE burning bush experience, then worked hard for the next 40 years doing the work of the ministry he had been called to. Michael pointed out that in giant letters across the cover of the book were the words “Experiencing God.” The conversation pretty much ended with that.

    • Moses had ONE burning bush experience, then worked hard for the next 40 years doing the work of the ministry he had been called to.

      ONE burning bush experience…followed by the confrontations with Pharaoh, calling down the plagues from God, the dividing of the sea, water from the rock, manna and quail, receiving the 10 Commandments from God’s very own hand and finger, regularly meeting with God face-to-face in the Tabernacle (which caused his appearance to glow wondrously such that it scared the Israelites), etc.

      I think Moses had more than one experience of, and with, God during those 40 years.

      • Here is the middle ground of Clarke and EricW’s arguments. God had/has? his prophets who have multiple experiences of him, yet there were hundreds of thousands of Jews in the old Testament around which not experiences were written.

  4. David Cornwell says

    Experience is so subjective that it can never be proven or unproven. I believe that people have all kinds of religious experiences. William James’ book is entitled “Varieties of Religious Experience” is about this very subject. I read this in college as part of a social psychology class. People have experiences that change their life forever. However when we confuse this with Christian requirement, then we run into deep trouble.

    This idea of “experience” caused me deep turmoil for many years, and I had time I’d say much more, but I’m getting ready to head out to church. And worship is an experience that I can heartily endorse.

  5. The devil causes religious experience too. You can tell by the fruits. Anything that leads away from Jesus Christ as written in the Bible is of the devil.

    • “He (the devil) can come all dressed up as angel of light.”

      So much for able to ‘count on’ our experiences.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      You’re slipping, Florian.

      Not even an attempt to link “The devil causes religious experience” to Catholics this time…

  6. Both my husband and I were diagnosed with cancer in December ’11, his is advanced and he has Parkinson’s. God can heal, “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Several colleagues at work are great at dispensing the ‘if you had more faith’ and ‘rebuke the disease’ guilt trips. Sigh…… Christ has promised to never leave us or forsake us as we walk through this valley — to restoration, wholeness, and complete healing here on earth or to the home He has prepared for us. Meanwhile, He gives a peace that passes all our understanding! I don’t have any answers.

    • You can’t explain the blessings of suffering to others, Karin, but you and your husband are in my prayers. And you are so correct that you will be healed, on one side or the other. Don’t let those without understanding upset your peace….many “Christians” seem to have forgot what the Lord went through here on earth. There is only trust…bless you both.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Several colleagues at work are great at dispensing the ‘if you had more faith’ and ‘rebuke the disease’ guilt trips.

      You can only dispense such Godly Advice if you’ve NEVER been there yourself. Like the “Wait on the LORD” advice on being single that only comes from those who married at 18.

  7. one of my favorite essays in the internet monk archives was the one where MIchael talked about having doubt- and he specifically mentioned in the essay the times he felt or was absolutely assured of God’s presence in his life were relatively few. he went on to talk about faith as simple trust rather than emotion or experience. he also talked about how the fall caused a divide in our experience and understanding of God to the point that oftentimes, we can feel like he is absent. this helped me so much! one of the continual issues of doubt that i struggled with in growing up in a conservative baptist fundamentalist church was the fact that I wasn’t having the same experiences as everyone else- I didn’t feel God speaking to me or telling me specific things I needed to do with my life. still though, i knew that I believed Jesus was the Christ- so i wasn’t sure where that left me. i guess i’ve come to trust what it says in Acts about how we live and move and have our being in God- i’ve slowly come to realize that I can trust this- even if I don’t have specific experiences that point to God always being present with me.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      one of my favorite essays in the internet monk archives was the one where MIchael talked about having doubt- and he specifically mentioned in the essay the times he felt or was absolutely assured of God’s presence in his life were relatively few.

      Which is a vastly more common experience than (in the words of Woody Allen’s Sleeper) “God and you going on double-dates all the time.”

  8. my co-worker’s mother got paid $13989 the prior month. she is getting paid on the internet and moved in a $388100 condo. All she did was get lucky and put to work the tips reported on this site …. LazyCash10.com

    • petrushka1611 says

      Quite a coincidence to have this particular spam post on this particular article. If God doesn’t supply your dreams, try teh intrawebz!

      Also also, SPAM!

  9. br. thomas says

    And yet, Peter tells us: “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have. But, do this with gentleness and respect.” In part, this speaks about telling others what a difference God actually makes in our life (personal experience) rather than trying to convince othersabout His existence or His ways with theological arguments. Of course, we can’t forgot St. Francis’ wondeful counsel: “Always be prepared to procalim the Good News, and when necessary, use words!”

  10. I love this post by Michael Spencer…. there is a lot of truth in it. I am beyond disillusionment and much of it I still have to live with. Plus given how evangelicalism backfires on the person…one must live with the reprcusions of “faith.” My assessment still stands in mnay cases…Christianity is a cancer. But what disillusionment can one might encounrter?

    1. Before my Dad had surgery for his brain tumor and before the MRI scan caught it. I received an email from a fundagelical asking me..”Why do I doubt God? Especially after my Dad was healed?” I got this email a few days before the doctor defined the MRI scan for us. Kind of the calm before the storm. When the bad news came…some Christians I knew became quite silent.To offset those there have been some who have offered incredbible love, and I don’t want to have those mixed in with what I am about to say. But I think it goes to show how 95 -97% of fundagelicalism is prosperity theology.

    How parts of disullusionment for me? They include the following?

    2. Watching Christians lie about their testimonies and going for the really juicy ones almost to the point of bragging.
    3. Watching people play and live in the Christian “facade” of perfect marriage, perfect children, perfect family, perfect job situation, etc… I mean even the counter tops in the kitchen are picture perfect. It also means being dishonest about most issues…because when you’re “reborn” there are no new problems!! You conqueered whatever it is and it’s all downhill, smooth sailing. Course it also means one must lie through their ass…
    4. One must have the miraclous story of God working in their life. When I was a fundy I felt an incredible pressure ot make up stories just so I could fit into the community around me. Anyone else feel like that?
    5. The doubt issue I can totally get…as that was one of my undoings in faith. No one can doubt, and fundys get nervous if someone starts to ask the “why?” question.
    6. Let’s not forget about the “God’s will” concept. It’s especially toxic when you are in a culture where everyone is talking about God’s will. Of course when it backfires in your life especially when taking that leap of faith, the onus always goes back to the person. You’ll hear stuff like..

    “You misintereprted…”
    “You needed to listen closer to God…”
    “God doesn’t make mistakes…it’s you…”
    “Why are you so down or pessimesstic…can’t you see that God is working?”

    One of the most poisonious cruxes in evangelicalism is that the onus is put back on the person. So when faith derails, or serious issues develops the community turns around and blames the person. The community and the faith teachings are exonerated and are not the issue..becuase they work. (double puke…) This is one of the parallels that I see with Mormonism…and one of the many unhealthy similarities I see between evalgelical Christinaity and Mormonism.

    There is so much in this essay I can relete to….

  11. Danielle says

    I can identify with a lot of this. I am not sure that my own response is entirely justified or the best, but years ago now I stopped ever making very bold claims about my own personal religious experiences. I tend not to believe other people’s stories, either — nor do I entirely disbelieve them. I allow that some are probably genuine or at least subjectively true; I’m merely agnostic about the claims made. As Eagle points out, there is a lot of pressure among evangelicals to narrative one’s life and experiences to meet expectations, so it is hard to tell how much is contrived (not necessarily on purpose-in fact, usually not on purpose, and there’s the danger). And in my early years of faith, I tended to equate faith with certainty (and salvation with being able to recount very particular experiences), and spiritual maturity with being able to sustain certain feelings.

    All this creates too many problems: People citing personal experience to justify anything and everything, people becoming celebrities or authorities by having the right stories to tell, bizarre problems spring up whereby God’s silence and human pain become causes of doubt and self-doubt. And due to the stigma of still being human rather than super-human: an average to greater-than-average aversion to being really honest about one’s struggles. When my own doubts arose, I had no way of interpreting the experience: Was I asking honest questions, investigating, growing? Or was I just a bad Christian? I can still imagine my life story narrated from two very different vantage points: the suspicion that I am a bad person will never entirely go away.

    Anyway, given all the difficulties of putting too much stock in experience, all I will say for myself is: “This happened and *I felt* this way.” Perhaps something was supernatural; perhaps it is all in my head; perhaps it is common grace at work in the natural processes of this world and in communities. I have not vantage point from which to judge; I can only seek God and do the best I can. So, no claims.

    Perhaps this is a cop-out—but then again, I am struck by the fact that not knowing whether something was divine fiat or common grace is strikingly inconsequential. Does it matter whether one sees an angel? Isn’t what matters following Christ, and having the fruits of that? Who cares where the inspiration comes from? And if the results are not there, what does it matter whether one ever saw an angel? Does it matter whether one was ‘healed’ or just got better? Isn’t the point: what do you do with your brief reprieve on the destiny that faces us all? Therefore perhaps the question doesn’t matter…all I can do by claiming divine healing is bring too much attention to myself. Life is shrouded in mystery, a sacrament taken and not understood. All I loose by not possessing certainty is my own confidence and power. I have too much of both anyway.