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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Revelations and religious experience

Speaking in tongues. Ecstatic prayers. Calm assurance. Visions. Revelations.

What to make of religious experience. Neurosis, psychosis, or psychopathology? A real connection with God, the angels, the spirit world, or the demonic? Something of both?

Paul is no stranger to dealing with the question of religious experience. To the Church at Corinth, he advises that it is good to go after the lofty spiritual experiences, such as speaking in tongues; but to love, however, is greater by far.

Paul tells the Galatian church that his gospel was received by a revelation, directly from the boss:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me was not of human origin; for I did not receive it from human beings nor was I taught it, but I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12

After a bit of a delay, I am continuing with my reflections on the book of Galatians, one of Paul’s more radical epistles. In Galatians, Paul sweeps the entire “law” aside in favor of freedom, breaks down ethnic, gender, and class distinctions, and mercilessly attacks anyone who opposes his gospel.

Yet before we get into these issues in more depth, I want to pause and look at Paul’s radical individualism. He bases his presentation of the gospel on an isolated revelation from Jesus Christ. This idea of personal revelation has been present in Christianity ever since Paul, with many throughout the centuries believing that they have received something directly by God: through visions, by an intense study of the inspired scriptures (as though directly given by God), through intense religious feelings, or by being taken up in trances.

When Paul says that he received his gospel by a revelation of Jesus Christ, he is clearly talking about a direct transmission of some sort. What is less clear is what this implies. Is Paul saying that his gospel should be given special consideration because it was transmitted directly from Jesus? The answer would seem to be “yes,” at first glance; however, Paul himself never actually makes the connection. Paul never says, “Look, I heard this gospel from Jesus, so that establishes it’s authority.”

In his commentary, Dieter Lührmann, takes pains to say that Paul is not developing an argument for the truth of his position based on religious experience: “Theology for Paul is not a retreat into his own religious experiences, which could perhaps establish his authority, but as such would not be transmittable. Theology, rather, is the unfolding of the content of the gospel, which has eschatological meaning for his own existence, as his interpretation of the Damascus experience as a ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ shows. The gospel can also acquire such meaning for others, because its convincing power lies not in the personality of the preacher but in its content, which brings salvation.” (page 19)

What Lührmann says above is interesting. If one appeals to one’s own religious experience, then it is not transmittable. I think this is a good point. The only way a personal religious revelation is transmittable is if someone else seems to have the same experience. But what happens in the church, or in any faith community, if the religious experiences start to vary? Bob feels that God spoke to him and told him that the church needs to spend more money on electric guitars for the worship service. What if others hear different voices?

Many contemporary evangelicals believe that this is precisely why we need an objective text like the Bible: The Bible can resolve differences and provide us with “the answers.” But this experiment has failed for at least two reason. First, there are as many different interpretation of the Bible as there are people reading it. Next, the Bible itself doesn’t come to us as the book of answers, but only as a collection of scriptures that present diverse approaches to faith. This does not, in my opinion, make the Bible less appealing or even truthful, but in fact gives us texts that are dynamic.

As we read through Galatians, it is clear that Paul doesn’t appeal to his revelation experience to make his case. He cites the Hebrew scriptures, he develops arguments, he appeals to the Galatian congregation’s own religious experience. Paul does not use his revelations as grounds for the truth of his gospel….but still….he does mention it. His gospel is not of human origin. It’s directly from Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that Paul does not directly use his revelation to push his gospel in terms of making an argument, the fact of the matter is that revelation from Jesus Christ does seem to give a person a bit of spiritual credibility.

This leads us into a discussion of the tension between personal/individual religious and the community. On the one hand, the personal nature of faith is very important. Religious experience can be deeply meaningful and transformative for each individual. On the other hand, an important element of religious experience is being a part of a religious community. That is, a believer finds that simply being a member of a greater whole is itself meaningful. For many, isolated religious experiences are secondary to the participation in a religious tradition that may span hundreds and even thousands of years. One feels a historical communion with saints and sages of the past.

The tension is in the book of Galatians itself. Clearly individual revelation is important to Paul. He sets himself apart from any received tradition, presumably as a superior form of communication. However, Paul does stand in the Jewish tradition, and it is the Hebrew scriptures that become central in his argument for a gospel that is based on the “promise” not law. This promise/law discourse is found in 3:15-25. At the end of chapter three, Paul says that “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” and that all were baptized into Christ. As such, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In 5:6 Paul says that circumcision nor uncircumcision are of any value. The only thing that counts is faith “being at work” (energoumene) through love.

So, while Paul places incredible emphasis on his own personal revelations, he stands in a tradition, argues from that tradition, and encourages those in the congregation to be one in Christ through the expression of love. This last point is somewhat astounding, considering how much Paul rails against his opponents. He suggests, ironically, that those who oppose him by emphasizing circumcision should go all the way with the knife and castrate themselves. At the close of his letter he suggests that his opponents only want to look good. They don’t keep the whole law, even if they suggest that others do so. And while Paul bears the marks of Christ on his body, his opponents sell out the real gospel in order to avoid persecution.

Things at this point are quite muddled and confused. Do we each just go our own way, according to our own personal revelations and individual religious experiences? Or do we try to hold together some sort of community of diversity? The book of Galatians just kind of leaves things confused. Paul condemns his opponents in no uncertain terms, and yet he doesn’t have a detailed plan for what happens next? Do the Galatian churches kick out these folks? If so, what is the litmus test? Paul himself isn’t entirely clear on defining what such a litmus test should be. Or do the churches try to work things out so that they can all stay in fellowship together, respecting differences and disagreements? Based on Paul’s letter alone, any number of possibilities would work.

On this point, I interpret Paul’s letter to the Galatians as an example of how difficult it is to work out our individual religious experiences within the context of a faith community. Experiences come into conflict with each other; our ethics and values might be in conflict; and our entire perspective on “faith” might be so different from someone else that we just have a difficult time finding any common ground. We all think that we are right. Those of us who are religious usually relate with Paul in some way, believing our revelations or ideas of faith are that which should prevail.

Sometimes we should stick it out with the community. Over the long run we find that it is worthwhile to stay together, and maybe over time differences become less and less important, as the relationships form into something that is much more substantial that our individual perspectives on faith. And yet at other times it is in fact necessary to break the ties and go our separate ways. It might be easier to stay, it might take courage to leave. Sometimes faith communities are together, but nothing seems to be gained (for anyone) by that union.

It’s tricky, but the tension is in the text, and I’m glad for that. In reading Galatians (and many of the other epistles of Paul), I am comforted by the complexity at work in the lives of individuals (like Paul) and the greater faith community. We do the best with the wisdom and discernment that we have, and try through all things to love each other, whether that means working things out together or going our separate ways.

Religious experience is often a mystery, even to those who experience; perhaps especially to those who experience it. As far as I can see, navigating these experiences in the context of others is a delicate and complicated matter. Even Paul seems to run into the complexities.


john doyle said...

Interesting observations about whether Paul uses his direct revelation from Jesus as a source of authority. He says that, after the revelation, he didn't go hang around with the apostles in Jerusalem, who seem to have been the main source of authority in the churches and against whose position he seems to be arguing in this letter. The sense I get is that the boys in Jerusalem have substituted groupthink for the truth. Not only does Paul refuse to go along with the "official" gospel, he attacks it, even to the point of gossiping about the church leaders' lameness in Chapter 2.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, it seems complicated to me....on the one hand, Paul does not directly invoke his experience to rationally argue his point. And yet he does bring it up, in a rather over-the-top manner, as you say, particularly in chapter 2. So, it's tough to know what to make of it, because it clearly counts for something in his favor, and by implication it established his own words as carrying greater weight than the rest of us, the chumps that didn't get to hear these revelations in the dessert!

It seems that Paul's intentions were to free people, to not use manipulation to force people into particular ways of doing faith, but he can't seem to avoid using some of these methods in his epistles. I think this is clear in Galatians. Still, I find his intention and overall project to be compelling: freedom in Christ, equality in the body of Christ, reconciliation with the world, transformative grace, etc.