Thursday, June 21, 2007

Not by our own feelings

A post going into more detail with my thoughts about 'conversion'. Click full post for the text.

My principal concern and criticism of evangelicalism lies in the way that it relocates the source of religious authority from an institution to an inward sentiment, ie the personal experience of God's activity normally described as 'conversion'. There's a sense in which this is healthy, but what I want to outline are the ways in which it is decidedly unhealthy.

It's not Scriptural.
I'm grateful for all the feedback to my question on this topic, but many of the references provided, it seems to me, are read anachronistically when they are read as justifying the emphasis upon particular experience. What I mean by that is the Scriptural understanding of 'the heart' is different to a contemporary Western understanding of 'the heart'. So far as I am aware, in the Bible, the 'heart' is the seat of judgement and will (sometimes other internal organs), and there is no division between 'the head and the heart', understood as a conflict between judgement and passions. The conflict takes place within the heart as a whole. So when we are encouraged by the prophets with the vision of having our hearts of stone replaced by hearts of flesh this is not a reference to becoming more sentimental - it is a reference to making decisions more compassionately, with regard to their effect upon our neighbour. The division current in our society between 'the head', meaning judgement and rationality, and 'the heart', meaning affections and sentiment, I believe to be wholly foreign to Scriptural categories. I could be wrong on this (please point it out if I am) but this seems to undermine many (not all) of the Scriptural references offered. I'm not disagreeing with the Scripture references as describing a change of heart (ie that which is essential to faith) but that they necessarily describe a "conversion" as it seems to be understood in contemporary evangelical culture.

One of the core texts for me is Romans 10.9, which describes, in my view, the core Christian proclamation and expression of faith, but Paul goes on to say 'For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified'. Here he's using 'heart' in the way I understand above - it is the ground of the personality, the fount of all that follows. I have no doubt that a 'change of heart' can be dramatic with profound physical expressions, as with Paul on the road to Damascus. Yet it also seems to me that the process can be gradual - we are not given much detail about how the other apostles grew in faith; I rather doubt that they all had a Pauline conversion! The dramatic and overwhelming personal experience is undoubtedly one way in which God can redeem a soul; I think it is not only presumptuous to imagine it is the only way, but Scripture testifies to diversity in this matter.

A different way of saying this same point is to say that it's a product of human culture: I'll go into this in more detail in my talks, as it's an area where I've done quite a lot of research on the context into which evangelicalism was born, but Noll puts it judiciously: "... in other significant ways, evangelicalism was itself an authentic expression of Enlightenment principles. Evangelicals... held, with Locke, that the self's personal experience was foundational for obtaining reliable knowledge. 'True religion', for evangelicals, might be recommended by tradition and by formal authorities, but until people personally experienced the love of God in their hearts, evangelicals held that their standing before God had to be in doubt". I just don't see this as legitimately derived from Scripture, and as the wider culture starts to move beyond Enlightenment principles, the influence of the Enlightenment on evangelicalism will become much clearer.

It undermines the church and causes active and profound spiritual harm in the life of Christian believers.
What I mean by this is that when the experience within a believer is given pride of place, the inherited tradition and wisdom of the church is progressively undermined. This means that the possibilities of correction to the individual will become fewer and fewer. This is really about the doctrine of original sin, and the ever-present potentiality of human self-deception. I do not wish to deny the reality, power, and salvific effect of dramatic conversions when they genuinely happen. What I object to is the use of such an experience to demarcate the Christian from the non-Christian. That is, I want to say that the testimony of a 'conversion' has no necessary and irrevocable link to the presence of the Holy Spirit within a believer. There are believers who have not had this conversion experience where the Holy Spirit is a shaping force in the life; there are those with eloquent testimony where the Spirit is absent. The root point is primarily that we are not in a position to judge between believers on the basis of such a putative occurrence.

Where there is an emphasis upon this sort of experience, and where in particular it is seen as the marker of salvation, it can cause profound spiritual harm, both in the lives of individual believers (John Wesley himself comes to mind, but I've had direct dealings with the consequences in many individuals) and also in the life of a church community (West Mersea carries scars from this). What evangelicalism sometimes seems to have become is an insistence that unless you use particularly effusive and emotional language then you are going to hell, and it therefore has absolutely nothing to say to those who are weak, vulnerable and depressed, other than asking for more and more exertions of belief. The one who is depressed is blamed for the depression; the light burden of Christ has become the crippling weight that destroys the soul. Instead of a works-righteousness there is now a creeping experience-righteousness, each of which is equally Pharisaical. I believe that the inherited traditions of the church have much richer and wiser guidance to offer in terms of shaping the ongoing life of the Christian community.

It leads to quietism (seen most obviously, in the present day, in things like the SBC statement denying global warming).
Conversion is about the shift from a 'nominal faith' to an embrace of 'true religion' - one which grips a person, which makes a difference in their life. It seems to me indisputable that this shift is essential to Christianity - it underlies all of Jesus' disagreements with the Pharisees for example, and the Scriptural instruction on this is vast. Yet what matters in this conversion is the orientation of the character; that is, what will then flow, what are the fruits? For we are also told consistently throughout Scripture that deeds count (see Rev 20.12-13 for the most explicit description of that judgement!) Before misunderstandings can run away too quickly THIS DOES NOT UNDERMINE THE PRIORITY OF GRACE! It is to say that when grace is active in our lives it will inevitably have an effect on the way that we live.

The prayers in the BCP are eloquent on this subject: "O God, the strength of all them that put their trust in thee, mercifully accept our prayers, and because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen." (Collect for First Sunday after Trinity). At the heart of the BCP's spirituality - of Protestant spirituality! - it seems to me, there is no room for any pride on the part of the Christian; there is instead an acknowledgement that we proceed solely by grace, both in terms of our inner dispositions ('will') and in terms of our outer accomplishments ('deed'). Yet the outer accomplishments still matter; the wider world still matters. This is what I think has become lost through the evangelical understanding of 'conversion', understood as the inward experience of salvation.


I believe that the Spirit is found in the interplay between the institution and the individual, and that excessive reliance on one pole will inevitably lead to idolatry. In correcting (necessarily correcting) the institution so successfully, evangelicalism has itself now become an institution in need of radical correction. In December 1789 John Wesley wrote some advice to Sarah Mallett, one of the earliest Methodist lay preachers, which included this advice: "You are not to judge by your own feelings, but by the word of God." Like many things that Wesley said, this seems to me to be right.

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