What does it mean to have a “religious experience”? Christians are hungry to “experience God”, as the mega-selling “Experiencing God” series of devotionals shows. For some, a religious experience legitimates their faith; for others, it is the source of their faith. For some, it’s not only a source or legitimation for faith, but also for doctrine. But what do we really mean by “experience”?
Pentecostals are probably the most concerned with experience, and we have a reputation for it too. In a theology class last year, my wife was in a group project with some Mennonites, one of whom said something along the lines of “I know you’re a Pentecostal, and I respect that, but I think we should be clear that Scripture is the only normative source for theology.” It seemed strange to us both at the time, but I suppose there may be some Pentecostals out there who see their religious experiences as genuine sources for theology. The trouble with using experience as a source for theology is, of course, the extremely subjective nature of experience: if experience is a normative source for our knowledge of God, then as soon as two people have mutually opposing experiences we must have two opposing understandings of God. While there’s all sorts of room for tensions in Scripture, we can’t have as many revelations of God as there are people, and have them all be seriously different. As difficult as it is to describe God, we can be confident that we know something about Him precisely because He is consistent within Himself.
What makes it worse is that “experience” is very often reduced to an emotional sense of connection with God, even in some scholarly treatments. Pentecostals often emphasize experience in the setting of worship, suggesting that ecstatic worship and a sense of God’s presence is this “experience” that we seek, usually accompanied by speaking in tongues, prophesying, and/or miracles. These physical expressions of this “encounter” with God are important because they bring a subjective, “spiritual” experience into the realm of concrete, physical experience.
Heikki Raisanen, in Beyond New Testament Theology, highlights the importance of “mundane” experiences – that is, physical, historical, and even everyday experiences. He does so in a framework he has built to define religion, as a dialectic between experience and tradition in which we interpret our tradition (or doctrine) by our experience and our experience by our tradition. In the Church, we have a symbolic system by which we interpret reality, including our experiences: we’ve defined reality and God in a certain way, and we thus fit our experiences into this framework. At the same time, our experiences can often affect that framework itself, often because the framework we have doesn’t have room for some of our experiences. He uses the example of Peter preaching to Cornelius’ household: upon seeing these Gentiles speaking in tongues, he says “How can we deny them the water to be baptised, now that we’ve seen that God has given them the same Spirit he gave us?” Up to that point there was no room in their theological framework for the Gentiles, but this particular experience expanded the framework, with dramatic consequences. (Raisanen relates a comment from a friend, who notes that a similar thing happened to Pentecostals at the beginning of the charismatic movement when they saw Catholics speaking in tongues). Another example he gives is of the Exile, which had a dramatic effect on the religious life of Israel, changing many practices and bringing up new ideas, such as the resurrection, which was previously unheard of. This in turn has become a central concept for, and paved the way for, Christianity.
So as Pentecostals, is our emphasis on experience legitimate? Are we emphasizing the wrong kind of experience? How do we tell the difference between a personal, subjective experience and a revelation from God? Does being aware of this dialectic between experience and tradition take away or moderate a sense of God’s personal connection and revelation to us? Is that a good or a bad thing?
In light of all of this, what does it mean to “experience God?” It strikes me that “religious experience” is not a feeling, or even an event, but a way of seeing and interpreting reality. Raisanen makes the point that we tend to experience what we have symbols for; the PAOC told me that those Pentecostal denominations who have ceased to emphasize speaking in tongues have, in large part, ceased to experience it as well. An awareness and understanding of God’s presence and of what He’s doing in the world allows us to experience reality in light of God. In that sense, every experience can be a religious experience, because I experience it, reflect on it, and interpret it in light of what I know about God, who is everywhere and working at all times.