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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On cheering when there's no game going on


I wish I had a buck for every time I heard an "evangelical" Christian tell me that God "told him" (or her) something.

I run an email group for Christians and other religious people with scrupulosity, the religious dimension of obsessive compulsive disorder. It's amazing the number of out-and-out delusions which arise from the believe that God speaks to us directly, reliably, and in a manner independent of Scripture through subjective impressions. A simple reading of history, of course, will impress anyone with an eye open for the phenomenon with how many amazing- and often gruesome- things God has allegedly told people down through the ages. A great many people are dead because God allegedly told others to kill them. In most cases, I think it's a reasonable conclusion that the message was either garbled, or- more likely- not authentic to begin with.

With the people I work with, "God" usually tells them the very things they want least to hear. Sometimes it's to perform some sort of essentially meaningless ritual. Sometimes it's to make a particular decision in a particular way they have no reason- Scriptural or otherwise- to believe would be God-pleasing or particularly beneficial. What these experiences have in common with the "messages from God" is their origin: the psychology of the hearer. Whether the "messages" are wish-fulfillment or obsessions arising from faulty cerebral wiring, they are our own voices, not God's. And they are voices that usually lead us either to indulgence of the baser parts of ourselves, or to confusion.  Neither are characteristic of God.

It says a great deal about the validity of the widespread claim that God routinely converses with Christians that an unbeliever claims that she has the same experience. Tanya Luhrman- who isn't even sure what the word "God" truly signifies- is fascinated by the fact that she has had the same "revelatory" experiences the charistmatic Christians she has been studying put so much stock in Not surprising; skeptical journalists and zealous Christians alike have personal psychologies. Sometimes they express themselves by claiming divine sanction for their own desires and wishes. Sometimes they represent random and utterly meaningless thoughts which miswired brains interpret as having significance they in fact lack. And sometimes- just often enough to help even the less credulous among us to believe on occasion- they represent insights of and conclusions which are the result of reasoning at a level of which we are not consciously aware. In the latter case, they sometimes are verified- and therefore qualified as significant and presumably external in origin- by subsequent events.

No Christian will deny that one often has truths or verses from Scripture suddenly come to mind while praying about the subject in question. And it's amazing, I grant, how often an answer comes to us immediately after praying for guidance. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the Word- to be sure, in the Law that is written (though obscured by sin) on the human heart, but more specifically in the Law and the Gospel which addresses us in Scripture, speaking of our sin and God's love. He brings those truths to mind at need, and may- when He decides to-  even unclutter our thinking for us, helping us to see things we hadn't seen before. The Bible promises more than once that He will give us words when we need them,

But we have no promise that He will be the One Who is doing that in any particular instance. Subjective impressions can be, and often are, simply wrong- which means that they come from our own psychology, and not from Him.

Every serious Christian prays for guidance when facing a significant decision, and believes that he or she finds it when the truths one learns about God in Scripture are correlated with the circumstances of life by the Holy Spirit Who comes to us in the Word.  But God, as St. Paul assures us, is not the Author of confusion. No, the "fuzzy radio station, 95.2, 94.9, which needs more tuning" is emphatically not the voice of God. Luhrman is closer to the truth when she sums up the experience this way:

What I saw was that they were learning to pay attention to their inner world in a different way. The church taught that words from God should feel as if they “pop” into the mind, a spontaneous break from the flow of thought.
Let us put to one side the question of whether God is really speaking, and examine the practice anthropologically. The first thing to notice is that the practice takes advantage of what we might call the “texture” of mental experience. We have thoughts that are more startling and surprising than others; thoughts that seem a piece of the psychic river of awareness and thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. These Christians treat these contours as significant.


But- as secularists and theological liberals seem to have so much trouble realizing- one cannot put such questions aside quite so easily. In fact, Luhrman answers that question- correctly, I believe, in the negative- when she chooses not to take it at face value. Like an historical-critical scholar who thinks that he can "objectively" study Scripture while disregarding its claim to a supernatural origin, the moment Luhrman chooses to examine the claim of charismatics that God "speaks to them" anthropologically, she has thereby dismissed it. The conclusion Luhrman comes to is, I think, the simple truth: what the charismatics are listening to when they pray is not the voice of God, but "a piece of the psychic river of awareness and thoughts." The voice they are hearing is not God's but their own.

Luhrman continues:


But they do more than attend to thought differently. The church teaches congregants to pay attention only to certain of these striking thoughts—to good thoughts, thoughts that are the kinds of things God should say. That is, those thoughts should be relevant, wise, and loving. (“God does not tell you to hurt yourself,” people said.) You should feel calm when you have them. When you hear God correctly, you should feel peace, and if you didn’t feel peaceful, it wasn’t God.


The logic seems to be that since God is wise and loving, if unexpected thoughts come to one in prayer that are relevant to the subject at hand, they must come from God. In other words, since all cats have four legs, and all dogs have four legs, all cats are dogs. Can kind, loving and even wise thoughts not come from ourselves? Do not even nice people who are not believers- like Tanya Luhrman- have kind, loving and wise thoughts?  Yes, the unscriptural and presumptuous teachings of their churches, which confuse the extremely rare biblical precident of direct revelation from God with the normal, every day experience of the average believer (and do so totally without biblical support) do indeed form a filter through which charismatics interpret merely psychological phenomena common to all human beings, with or without the Holy Spirit. And who says that a feeling of peace is in any sense an indication of a thought's divine origin? If the teaching of Christ tells us anything, it is that the Holy Spirit's ministry will provoke violent opposition from the Old Self that continues to exist within us and war against the New. If the Old Self is cool with something, how is that proof that it comes from God?

There aren't many false teachings which have caused more spiritual misery and have led people to such profound and even ridiculous spiritual dead ends than the notion that God whispers in their ears- or that He can be expected to. Yes, we pray about our decisions and our circumstances. Yes, the Spirit brings the truth of His Word to our awareness, and helps us to apply it in the context of our lives. But in the last analysis, we are capable of being deceived, usually with the active complicity of our own fallen natures. Calling the products of our own psychology the voice of God doesn't protect us from being wrong. And while they are very good at rationalizing the experience away, those who rely on "God" to whisper advice directly into their ears while circumventing their own psychology very often are wrong. The late Professor Kurt Marquart of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne used to tell the story of a "message" that came to a man at a Pentecostal church service that said that if the pastor would ride all over the county on a black horse preaching the Gospel, a great revival would take place.

The congregation searched far and wide, but nowhere in the county were they able to find a black horse. So "God" sent them another message: Not to worry. A brown one would do.

Think about it.

I once heard a pastor describe the phenomenon known to theologians as "Enthusiasm" by inviting us to imagine the local high school football stadium filled to capacity some Friday night, and the fans enthusiastically cheering the efforts of the local eleven down on the field. 

Now imagine the same stadium, he said, on a Tuesday night. The same crowd is there, and they're cheering and hollering just as enthusiastically. Except when you look down on the field, there's no game going on.

Cheering and hollering are indeed real phenomena. But they do not necessarily mean that there's a football game going on, except in the imaginations of the crowd.

HT: Real Clear Religion

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