Monday, October 31, 2011

What Gets Your Juices Going as a Christian?

All my life as a Christian I have been caught between the cross-fire in the war against ‘subjectivity’ in spiritual things. Luther railed against the ‘schwermer’ (the fanatics) and Lutheran churches ever since have been scenes of conflict between those whose goal it is to protect orthodoxy from emotion and those who are addicted to the ‘high’ they get from emotion in their spirituality.

So what are we to make of the ongoing attraction of pleasure as a feature of Christian worship? Is it always ‘wrong’ to enjoy devotional experiences? Is the current interest in ‘spirituality’ today just another sign of contemporary hedonism – transferred into our religious experiences?

As Christians we do not subscribe to the dreadful anthropological theory that human beings are mere animals whose thoughts and emotions are nothing more than the result of electrochemical processes in their brains. We are not materialists. Having said that, we recognize that we are spiritual beings with material bodies, whose thoughts and emotions are influenced by neurotransmitters and other electrochemical agents in ways similar to that of all conscious living things. We accept the fact that our souls are hosted by and in some ways limited by our bodies in a fallen world.

Part of the reality of the religious scene in general and the realm of spirituality in particular is the routine stimulation and manipulation of the brain by practitioners to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Such exercising of the brain in religion encompasses a broad range, from the academic-sounding cerebral use of complex rationalistic concepts to the decomposed ‘language’ of glossolalia and everything in between.

Leaving aside the manipulation of the brain by mind-altering substances, legal and illegal, found in some religions, an altered state of consciousness can be achieved by means of words. Language is one of the most potent brain stimulants in religion. Language is a divine gift – a miracle to which we have become so accustomed that we take it for granted and often abuse it.

Neurobiologists tell us that the area of the human brain that processes language is located right next to the area of the brain that processes transcendent and religious concepts. Synaptic connections being what they are, language and spiritual thoughts overlap and we find words to be very evocative and spiritually charged.

The use of language to achieve an altered state of consciousness is, of course, not just a religious phenomenon. It is used by everyone from child-minders to horse-whisperers to calm and focus minds. Lovers use ‘pillow talk’ and lovey-dovey language to generate feelings of intimacy as mind-altering as those generated through sexual activity. As they say, the most important sexual organ is the brain.

The use of language among lovers has much in common with the use of language in spirituality. The common denominator and ‘bottom line’ is pleasure – specifically the pleasure associated with intimacy. ‘Sacred pleasure’, if it can be achieved, is a kind of ‘holy grail’ for spirituality. Religious practitioners quite understandably long for religious exercises that are as pleasurable as they are obligatory. If we must resist the pull of gravity (that is ‘the law of sin that wars within our members’ (Rom. 7) in order to soar into a meaningful heavenly conversation with God, wouldn’t it help if we could ‘get our jollies’ at the same time? What if Christian devotional exercises could be, on some level, genuinely pleasurable?
Having crudely described the holy grail of spirituality, it is hard to identify very much else that can be said to be held in common among the myriad seekers of pleasurable intimacy with God. What one does find are schools of spirituality that seek to guide individual believers into common experiences of intimacy with God.

Such schools of spirituality are by no means conducive to unity among believers (This is a real understatement!) Splits between believers have often been caused by clashes between them over ‘what gets your juices going’ spiritually. Some clash over whether pleasurable intimacy with God is even right or valid. ‘If it feels good, it can’t be right’, they reason.

Often such splits are defined by their doctrinal disagreements even though some ‘doctrines’, such as the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ or ‘devotion to the sacred heart of Mary’ are less dogmatic than they are experiential. Speaking in tongues and endless repetitions of the Ave Maria, despite the diversity of their denominational origins, have much in common with each other. Both are among many manifestations of the use of experiences and mysticism to stimulate and manipulate the human brain to achieve a pleasurable altered state of consciousness. They are examples of devices employed in the up-hill effort to enjoy an intimate relationship with God.

Perhaps aware that the word ‘spirituality’ attracts book sales, recent Lutheran authors flirt with a kind of ‘bait and switch’ game claiming to describe spirituality but ending up discussing how Lutheran appreciation of objective doctrines rescues Lutherans from the perils of subjectivity.
Consigning the experiences properly associated with spirituality to the realm of dubious subjectivism and fleshly pleasures, these Lutherans fail to do justice to the way that even Lutherans are wired neurologically as human beings. Is the best we Lutherans can do to arrive at an almost Buddhist renunciation of all fleshly experiences in our efforts to cultivate an orthodox spirituality? Offering a ‘spirituality’ like this, without subjective experiences, is like offering a feast without food.

Part of the reason for Lutheran suspicion and disdain for experiential spirituality is that feeling a pleasurable intimacy with a god is not exclusively Christian. Yet, since when do Christians deplore using their brains, just because non-Christians use theirs? Just because we are all using the same ‘wiring’, does that mean it is uncertain or unlikely that the true God is involved in such use of our brains? After all, the true and only God is the one who has given us our brains in the first place.
No human brain is intrinsically Christian. If non-Christian brains have experiences associated with false gods that does not mean that such experiences are un-available to the true God. If anything, the opposite is true. Spiritual experiences available with the True God should make the subjective experiences with the false god’s feel like cheap fakes by comparison!

Recent efforts to elaborate upon ‘Lutheran Spirituality’ have failed to address these issues. I suspect that, in our zeal to avoid subjectivism tainted with sinful flesh we are underestimating what God can and is willing to do. And in rejecting intimate experiences with God as a priori dubious and heretical, we are letting our doubts get the best of us, and cheating ourselves out of a much more pleasurable spirituality than we feel is available or legitimate.

We excuse ourselves by insisting that we do not doubt God – we doubt man; we doubt ourselves. So we have not because we ask not. We find not because we seek not. And where is this emotionless, dispassionate piety exemplified in God’s Word? Nowhere. Emotionally dead orthodoxy is probably a remnant of enlightenment rationalism disguised as good Lutheranism, rather than genuine Christianity.
But, we argue, only experiences that are from God, like the Means of Grace, like the dominical Sacraments, are valid experiences for spirituality. This sounds reasonable: if the experience is ‘from God’ it’s legit; if it’s of human origin its not. But is that what we find in real life? Is this even what we find in Scripture? Or is spirituality more nuanced, less clearly defined, more of a mysterious mix of the divine and human?

Did God give us such enormously complex brains so that we could only interact with a few sacraments intended for the forgiveness of sins?

What do we find in Holy Scripture? The Bible exposes us to all kinds of ecstatic spirituality that we are taught today to dismiss as limited to biblical times. St. Paul says, ‘I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also’, and we have no clue what he is on about. He says, ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you’, and we exclude his experiences from consideration because he was an apostle. We read his apostolic direction, ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’, but we have seen congregations torn apart by that practice. (1 Corinthians 14.15,18 & 39).

We are also pretty hypocritical on this score, as well. I say that because many a believer, denouncing the smell of incense, will actively promote the sound of their favourite inspirational artist. And many, turning up their noses at the sound of ‘Casting Crowns’, will get misty-eyed at the sound of a Mozart or Schubert Mass, sung by a choir. We all have different stuff that gets our juices going as Christians, so why disparage others? As we read in Romans: 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's’ (Romans 14.4-8)
Maybe the problem with spirituality is that it belongs in that growing catalogue of things about which it has to be said that ‘people ruined it’.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for re-habilitating the concept of spirituality in our circles. I only appeal to us to do justice to the subject. Let’s really pursue and expect pleasurable intimacy with God and heavenly things – each one of us ‘being fully convinced in his own mind’, as the Bible says.