The Dangers of Experience
In the Church of the Nazarene, one of the greatest tools we have to evaluate and guide our faith is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many different diagrams or variations of the Wesley Quad have been introduced over the years, but in its simplest form, it means that we allow several perspectives inform our faith: the writings of Scripture, the tradition within broader church history and within our unique denomination, reason found within logic and study, and the experiences of both the individual believer and the local church community. Or, to put it another way, we read the Bible through the lenses of reason, tradition, and experience. Likewise, our reason, experiences, and tradition should always be informed by Scripture and by one another. This framework is our attempt among a plethora of denominations to be the “via media,” or the “middle way.”
Problems arise when we emphasize one piece of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral over the other three.
When we read Scripture without being informed by reason or tradition or experience, we easily fall into a fundamentalist, literalistic interpretation of God’s word. This is the classic position of, “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” When taken to the extreme, this practice can lead to what we see in the snake-handling denominations: by having a literalistic interpretation of Mark 16:17-18, these churches took two verses out of context and built an entire denomination around an ill-advised practice that seems crazy even to most other Christians. But more often, we see this over-simplification of Scripture occurring in more subtle ways, such as in denominations that refuse to ordain women as pastors or only accept certain views on creation and eschatology. Scripture without a proper understanding of the historical and biblical context (reason), without the perspective offered by 2000 years of Church history (tradition), and without the affirmation of individual believers or believers in community (experience) is careless or even dangerous.
Historically, we have seen how issues can arise when we place tradition over reason or experience or the authority of Scripture. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Papal authority grew to unhealthy proportions, and the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church overrided the faith of individual believers. Because of the corruption found within that tradition, reformers like Martin Luther called for a return to Scripture (sola Scriptura) and affirmed that the experiences of all Christ-followers are important (priesthood of believers).
Modernism has shown us how a focus on reason can lead people astray from the Christian faith. During the Enlightenment, an over-emphasis on reason caused many skeptics to question the truth of the Bible. Reason has led many scientists and philosophers to reject Christianity or turn to atheism. This makes sense, because a Christian faith without Scripture, tradition, and experience is illogical. There is something about the beauty of the Psalms that cannot be quantified, or the experience of receiving communion that cannot be calculated, or the fellowship of believers within a tradition that cannot be measured. These intangibles defy reason, but they are what makes our religion one based on faith and trust.
Most recently, I have noticed a heavy push toward the experience side of the Wesley Quad. Particularly, there are some leaders and many members within my own denomination that want to see a resurgence of an experience-filled revivalism, or pentecostalism. Specifically, they long for an “experience” with the Holy Spirit: they want to “experience” the “skekinah glory,” they want to “experience” the manifest presence of God; they want to “experience” amazing acts of healing.
Not unsurprisingly, this push toward experience has come at the expense of the other three pieces of the Wesleyan hermeneutic. It is often accompanied by a spirit of anti-intellectualism. It goes against the tradition of our denomination that has made an intentional effort to separate itself from the Pentecostalism of the American Holiness Movement. It ignores the instruction of Scripture to let love be our highest goal (1 Corinthians 14:1), rather than pursuing a certain type of experience.
As with an over-emphasis on reason, tradition, or Scripture, there are many dangers or pitfalls of leaning too heavily on the experience arm of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many of these dangers are highlighted through the revivalism/pentecostalism that is found in the charismatic stream of our denominational tribe.
Danger 1: Shallow Faith
Revivalism often results in a shallow faith that burns bright at first, but quickly flames out without the steady support of tradition, reason, and Scripture. Many of those who passionately throw themselves on the altar return to the mourner's bench week after week, in search of the “spiritual high” that can get them through until the next altar call. Often, their bold proclamations of faith are not followed up with personal action or consistent discipleship and mentoring. But we pastors put the tally marks on our spiritual roster, proudly proclaiming that “this many were saved” or “that many were sanctified” under our leadership. We excitedly report the number of “experiences” that we were witnesses to, but we don’t do the hard word of continued pastoral guidance and discipleship.
Danger 2: Emotional Manipulation
A second danger to overly-emphasizing experience is emotional manipulation. This forced emotionalism is an attempt to regularly recreate a particular experience or produce certain emotions. It is looking for that “spiritual high” or “mountain top experience” associated with teen camp, revivals, and altar calls. Often, it is trying to replicate the spiritual fervor that comes along with a conversion or sanctification experience.
Now, in many other areas of life, the church frowns upon emotional manipulation. For example, when it comes to pornography, we realize that those who are addicted to porn are subject to false emotions: they have the “feelings” that come with love and intimacy without actually having the love and intimacy found within true relationship. While this may be an extreme example, I find many parallels within revivalism. Many people want the “experience” of “feeling” the presence of God without having the actual relationship with God. And how easy it is to replicate those experiences with the correct mood lighting, just the right song, and an emotional plea from a powerful speaker! Once again, we want the benefits of these experiences, without putting in the hard work to make those experiences last longer than the final “amen.”
Danger 3: Powerful Personas
Additionally, these charismatic leaders of revivalistic movements tend to gain a large following because of their ability to emotionally manipulate those around them. We are made to feel that these leaders are “more in tune with God” and that they have the power to bring about the experiences for which we long. They may even call themselves “intercessors” or “prophetic seers.” They like to begin sentences with, “God told me…” Often, if someone criticizes these powerful leaders, they are reprimanded, "touch not God’s anointed.” The great danger of these charismatic leaders is when we place them (or sometimes they place themselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally) on a platform higher than God.
Danger 4: Spiritual Abuse
Another pitfall of this form of revivalism is that it is prone to spiritual abuse. This often happens in subtle ways: “You just need to pray harder.” “You would be healed if you had more faith.” “Your depression is merely a sign that you need to rely more on God.” “Maybe there is some unconfessed sin in your life.”
When we come expecting God to act or move in a certain way, and God does not act or move in that particular way, we go away frustrated and disappointed. We may think that we are the problem--that there is something wrong with us. This type of thinking is particularly damaging to pastors, who--although faithful and committed to their local churches--are not experiencing the kind of growth that seems to happen among revivalists. They assume that they must be the ones at fault or are the ones to blame. They fall prey to self-doubt perpetuated by a spiritually abusive mentality found within pentecostalism.
Danger 5: Exclusivist and Elitist Religion
Many in the charismatic camp believe that the Holy Spirit only moves (or perhaps, best moves) through the type of tent-meeting revivals that marked the early days of our denomination. While I do not deny that God can and often does work in these ways, I believe that God moves and works in many other ways as well. The Holy Spirit is present in the quiet contemplation of a monastery. Christ is pleased when we serve the poor and hungry in His name. God moves in the library of a seminary, in the personal devotions of the believer, in the holy conversations among friends, and in the cries for justice for the marginalized of our society. God’s Kingdom is not limited to one evangelical method or one type of worship experience. The Quakers speak of an inner stillness and Episcopalians seek God through liturgy and sacrament. The prayer of the sinful tax collector was heard as clearly as that of the pious religious leader. The Lord is far bigger than our limited human experiences of God.
Danger 6: Suspicion and Skepticism
But probably the biggest danger of revivalism and pentecostalism is that it devalues those times when the Holy Spirit truly is moving and granting us unique experiences that can only come through the acknowledgement of God’s presence in our midst. A skewed leaning toward the experiences of pentecostalism leads skeptics like me to doubt when anybody says they “witnessed a healing” or “saw the Holy Spirit moving.” I do believe that miracles still happen and that the Holy Spirit is actively moving among us and working within us. I fully affirm that we can do great and amazing things through Christ, who gives us great power and boldness. But so many false prophets have used manipulation and tactics of spiritual abuse in the name of God that I find myself constantly being suspicious. Similarly, those of my generation have seen far too many altar calls that did not lead to actual life changes. We want to believe, but we have been burned by the false promises of a movement that has not led to an actual spiritual awakening within our church.
Ultimately, when we seek an experience, we are not seeking Christ. And that is neither Wesleyan, nor Christian.
In closing, I want to affirm that Holy Spirit experiences have a real and important place in the practice of our faith. I never want to discount or belittle the experiences of my fellow believers. Despite my doubt and my skepticism, God continues to move in incredible ways.
I only want to caution against elevating our emotional experiences to a place that is higher than Scripture, reason, or tradition. (I expect others would do the same for me if I am ever over-emphasizing one piece of my faith.) As has been the case in my own life, I hope that our experiences further propel us into the realms of Scripture, reason, and tradition. When kept in a proper balance, this framework allows us Nazarenes to be the centrists that we claim to be.