Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Validity of Religious Experience

How many times have we heard the phrase "I cannot deny my experience"? This is all the more the cry when it comes to religious experience. But in fact the issue is not the reality or the clarity of the experience, the issue is the source, the content and trajectory of the experience. What distinguishes a good from a bad religious experience in part depends on whether it has come from the one true God, or from some other source. It also depends on what that experience leads, impells, or prompts you to do. 'You shall know the tree by the fruit it bears...." And according to the author of 1 John, there are even specific criteria by which we may be able to tell whether a particular religious experience is from God or comports with the Christian faith.

In his classic commentary on the Johannine Epistles, C.H. Dodd says this about the validity of religious experience:

"We may have the feeling of awareness of God, of union with Him, but how shall we know that such experience corresponds to reality? It is clear that no amount of clearness or strength in the experience itself can guarantee its validity, any more than the extreme vividness of a dream leads us to suppose that it is anything but a dream. If, however, we accept the revelation of God in Christ, then we must believe that any experience of God which is valid has an ethical quality defined by what we know of Christ. It will require with it a renewed fidelity to His teaching and example. The writer does not mean that only those who perfectly obey Christ and follow His example can be said to have the experience of God. That would be to affirm the sinlessness of Christians in a sense which he has repudiated [see 1 Jn. 1]. But unless the experience includes a setting of the affections and will in the direction of the moral principles of the Gospel, it is no true experience of God, in any Christian sense."

In 1 John 2 the Beloved Disciple suggests a series of moral tests to see if one's experience is of God, for example-- does it produce behavior like the behavior of Jesus? Does it lead one to love God with one's whole heart and one's neighbor as self, or is it narcissistic in character? Does it lead to holy living or does it lead to questionable beliefs and behavior? Does it lead to moving on faith, or does it lead to fear-based practices, since the experience of the real love of God casts out all fear? Does it lead to the belief that Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh, as the Johannine Epistles put it, or to some sort of heterodox belief about Jesus?

At the end of the day what the author of the Johannine Epistles is suggesting is that there are some external tests, tests grounded in what God's Word says and what Christ's character manifests by which we may and should evaluate our experiences including even very genuine religious experiences. As it turns out, the way to tell the difference between heart burn and a heart strangely warmed, both genuine experiences, is by evaluating it by using external and objective criteria. In an affective age, this is all the more crucial because feelings are often deception and a notably bad guide to truth or the goodness of something.


Jim said...

Your final two sentences are remarkably observant and I think right on the money. Thanks for sharing them.

James Petticrew said...

Dr Witherington, I'm one of the new beeson pastors on campus and was glad to see that some of the profs are blogging. You can catch mine at www.xanga/jamespetticrew.
Anyway, I wanted, as someone just come from 12 years of pastoral ministry, to affirm your wisdom on this subject. I encountered all sorts of what I can only describe as blatant sin and odd behaviour, justified on the grounds of experience and personal revelation. The problem, well more a challenge really, for us in the Wesleyan tradition is how to affirm the validity of religious experience and yet at the same time not allow subjectivity to run rampant in how we understand and apply the implications of those experiences. Your advice helps.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

Thanks for this note. I experienced the same thing in pastoring six churches in N.C. One thing that helps is upping the level of Biblical literacy and accountability in one's congregation.


Edward T. Babinski said...

Your essay spoke in general, but what part of God's Word and what part of Christ's behavior ought to be emphasized?

Jesus (or perhaps later Gospel authors speaking for Jesus) cursed "the Pharisees," calling them names as bad as any in that day. Did Jesus overturn tables, causing a tumult in the Temple, even using a knotted cord on animals and/or people? Paul was not without a certain skill in name calling either. The Book of Revelation is filled with curses, as is the end of Deuteronomy. One might include the first curses in Genesis. How serious ought we to take the cursing aspects of the Bible and make them our own? Certainly the Bible predicts strife, family members "hating" one another, and Jesus saying he had come to cast fire on the earth and "how I wish it was already kindled." Such prophecies if they may be so called have been fulfilled many times over in the history of Christendom, for strife naturally accompanies all evangelical movements of any and all religions that preach eternal judgment based on the truths that any one of those religions preach.

Also speaking in terms of what part of God's Word and what part of Christ's behavior ought to be emphasized, consider how vast is Christianity, with over 35, some say 45 thousand different sects and denominations. Many of them believe "hell" is the destination of "other so-called Christians," instead of the doctrine of hell promoting general ethical behavior among all Christians, Muslims and Jews. Some Christians also use "the rod" on children. Some Christians still think John Calvin's list of Biblical laws, punishments and proscribed behaviors are essential, and they are working to promote such laws in government. Neither do Christians seem to be able to convince one another of the truth of each other's views on matters as diverse as same-sex unions, female equality, and a host of issues. Evangelical Christian publishers have even begun producing a “viewpoints” series. Apparently the Bible does not speak clearly on a host of important issues.

Books by InterVarsity Press:

Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialog

Four Views on Divine sovereignty and Human Freedom

Four Christian Views of Economics

Four Theologians Debate the Major Millennial Views

Women in Ministry: Four Views

Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views

Theologians and Philosophers Examine Four Approaches to War

Books by Zondervan Press, part of their Counterpoints Series:

Two Views on Women in Ministry

Three Views on the Rapture

Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond

Three Views on Creation and Evolution

Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: Four Views

Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World

Four Views on the Book of Revelation

Four Views on Eternal Security

Four Views on Hell

Five Views of Law and Gospel

Five Views on Sanctification

Five Views on Apologetics

There is a range of Christian beliefs and behaviors even wider than the viewpoints series above. I have a list somewhere. But just to name one, slave owning, is it ever declared a "sin" in the Bible in either testament (Jesus himself is described as taking for granted in a parable, that the disobedient slave "shall be beaten with many stripes," a verse that was cited by some devoutly Southern Christian slaveowners--Mark Noll at Wheaton has written on this topic and mentioned the rift between Christians that the question of slavery caused, a rift that was not healed by citing Bible verses). Slave owning Christians and pro-slavery theologians knew their Bibles well indeed, as Noll points out.

Also, can the Bible alone decide whether the American Revolutionary war was truly a godly revolution, or not? The British believed in their system of government that revolved around "God and the King." It was the American forces that were tainted with Deistically inclined writers and thinkers, like Thomas Paine, whose little book fired the first volley. And Saint Paul does not seem inclined toward revolution either.

In short, what specifically can anyone say about the Bible's specific guidelines without someone else finding some other passages concerning alternate types of behavior, or even alternate spiritual practices and beliefs?

I think Christians, like people with other beliefs, take them for granted. We all do. And there is no easy way to separate and absolutely distinquish the true spirit of Christ any more than say, the true spirit of Marx. (Not that I am a Marxist, but he had a heart for the working man, who was being destroyed in the "mills of Satan" as Blake called the factories of the industrial revolution, and Marx also loved his wife, writing her and saying, "Let the Christians have their god, and Hindus have theirs, so long as I have you to love and adore." Marx also co-wrote the Communist Manifesto with Engles who owned a factory and let the workers own a portion of it. Marx however was wrong to emphasize revolution. He did not foresee the possibility of workers forming unions to demand better wages and working conditions. Marx also compared religion to the "laudanum" of his day, an opiate pain-relieving drug that the rich could afford to indulge in, but which the poor could not afford. Marx allowed that religion was the opiate of the masses who could not afford laudanum. Marx also hoped for a "worker's paradise." What then was the true spirit of Marx? He loved his wife and was as appalled at the way human beings were mistreated as Dickens and Blake were. And today, even the U.S. government practices Marxist governmental principles such as taking money from the wealthy and redistributing it to those in need.

Just a few thoughts. There are things in both Jesus and Marx that I admire. Jesus warned most loudly against two things, the corrupting influence of wealth and against religious pride and hypocrisy.

We should take all books and people and seek what's best in them, and also note when they or their followers take things to excess.

Be open to the best in every person and every book. Though we do like to try and simplify matters, as if only a single book could tell us all we need to know, and damned be all other books, or people who find our book to contain questionable elements.

J said...
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J said...
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adam said...

Read Johnathan Edwards book Treatise on the Religious Affections. From the 1700s but still the best book on the topic of discerning true experience from false that I know of. It's free online at or you can listen to it read at