by Pastor Doug Kings

Anne Enright is an Irish author who recently reviewed two books about “religious experience.” The publisher also asked Enright about her own religious experience.

Enright describes her own religious experiences as a teenager, feeling a blissful sense of “group yearning” at prayer meetings…. Did she have a loss of faith later in life? “It was all a long time ago, but I don’t remember any great drama of possession and loss…. To be honest, I am not sure I ever lost my faith—which is, after all, not an object to be mislaid.”  

She still sometimes feels a sense of mystical connection. “When people ask, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I want to answer, ‘Only late at night’—and that’s no use, is it? With something as big as God you don’t get to say ‘sometimes,’” she said. “This is my problem with religious systems, they take a small feeling about the absolute—one of sweetness or hope or even of moral joy—and they turn it into a big, authoritarian hoo-ha. I can’t be bothered with all that. I do worry, however, that secular thinkers refuse to understand how religion feels….” 

Leaders and participants in the “big, authoritarian hoo-ha” (we’ll call it BAH for short), otherwise known as the church, have been wondering for many years about people like Anne Enright. They are the countless millions who grew up in the church, or had some kind of positive relationship with it as teenagers or young adults, but who later drifted away.

Enright’s response to that question got my attention because it is not one that I’ve heard before: the abuse or dismissal of religious feeling. “They take a small feeling about the absolute … and they turn it into a big, authoritarian hoo-ha. I can’t be bothered with all that.”

The problems of Christianity’s BAH have been debated and argued about from its earliest days. Luther, of course, was one who thought he had fixed it, but instead of cutting it down to size it only seemed to multiply. Today, after nearly two millennia, BAH is shrinking rapidly in the face of secularism and consumerism. (The ELCA, for example, estimates its membership will have essentially evaporated by mid-century.)

Yet while religious institutions shrink, religious feeling and experience seem to be alive and well. Though these things are notoriously difficult to define, surveys indicate Enright’s story is not unusual. Are these feelings and experiences all over the map? No doubt. Are some of them suspect or over-the-top? Probably. Yet they are nonetheless an important part of many people’s lives, with or without BAH.

Religious feeling has always been an important part of the Christian experience. Even today, most Christians, in or out of the church, remember some experience as children or teenagers that became a foundation for their awareness of and belief in a transcendent reality, usually called God.

But BAH has never known what to do with religious experiences and often sees them as dangerous. They are the spiritual form of coloring outside the lines and BAH is all about drawing lines and keeping people inside them. While it likes the initial enthusiasm and commitment such feelings create, BAH believes the “mature Christian” will set such feelings aside for a careful study of its doctrine and rule book. Today, however, most people seem to share Enright’s reaction: “I can’t be bothered with all that.”

Enright says she worries “that secular thinkers refuse to understand how religion feels.” My concern is that this has also been the church’s experience. Notoriously, mainline Christians can’t talk about God because in the modern world God makes no sense. “God is dead.” Evangelical Christians can’t stop talking about “the God of the Bible” because it’s their only way to fend off their fear of the modern world’s spiritual emptiness.

Both modern Christianity’s deafening silence and deafening din are consequences of trying to divorce religious ideas from religious experience. After Job and his friends debate the idea of God for over thirty chapters, God finally steps in to put an end to their nonsense. After God’s confrontation with Job, he says, “I had heard of you [in the past] by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” and he repents with deep humility “in dust and ashes.”

Job’s “seeing” God is an experience of God in the depths of his soul, with his heart. While even the Bible acknowledges the idea of such an encounter is terrifying, the reality is a transformation in love. Such a reality is not learned in a book, even a holy one, or with a computer but is only experienced and felt deep within.

That people continue to have such experiences, even when disdained or suppressed by religious institutions like BAH, is itself testimony to the mysterious divine working in our world. Those experiences may also be our best sign of hope for the Spirit’s transformation of this world, now in such desperate need.

Blessings in your life and ministry. Pastor Doug