Photo By: Zac Davis. Article By: Megan Wildhood.
This year’s annual Paul T. Walls lecture was delivered by Associate Professor of Theology and SPU alum, Dr. Doug Koskela. Entitled “I Knew When Written on My Heart: Experience and the Knowledge of God,” Dr. Koskela’s address thoroughly and clearly discussed father of Methodism John Wesley’s understanding of experiential knowledge of God. He began this discussion by pointing out our current, collective discomfort with discussing this topic. Koskela asserts that John Wesley considered a certain kind of religious experience essential for coming to faith and that something vital to Wesleyan communities is lost if these experiences are not present.
Wesley’s vision of how we come to the knowledge of God (i.e., his epistemology of theology), involves inner or perceptive experiences and the use of the spiritual senses (e.g., the eyes of understanding, the ears of the soul). Wesley understood such experiences to confirm what God has already promised rather than bestow new revelation. Wesley’s general epistemology is empirical, that is, that knowledge comes through experience. So how does one come to comprehend the claims made by the Christian faith?
Wesley argued for testimony, not the congregational practice of giving one’s testimony. Rather, Wesley is referring to a means of acquiring a belief: one believes something because someone told it to me, as opposed to witnessing, remembering or inferring it for myself. There are two basic and necessary movements of testimony: God’s own testimony and the testimony of Christians throughout history. We don’t naturally have much access of (saving) knowledge of God; we rely on what God has revealed about God’s own self through the Incarnation – God’s coming among us and, since none of us was around during the particular time period in which this occurred, the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. God’s own testimony about God’s self cannot be trumped but there are roles for human testimony. The Bible is just a collection of words on a page until someone proclaims and preaches them. Additionally, the community of faith, broadly understood, needs to regulate interpretations of Scripture.
But why might one come to believe that those claims are true? Wesley placed tremendous weight on the mind and heart of the believer. Sin has clouded our cognitive ability to perceive God, so God divinely restores the believer’s ability to perceive by reawakening his or her spiritual senses. When these senses are engaged, these are the strongest and most enduring proof of truth. But only for the believer experiencing them, which is why Wesley encouraged people to be open to these kinds of internal-evidence experiences. Until one experiences these things directly, one would not, Wesley surmised, develop the true and abiding love of God. Even when we hear testimonies, sin has closed our ability to use our non flesh-and-blood senses to apprehend God and it is God alone who restores our spiritual sense, we can’t do it ourselves. But Wesley is not a determinist. He insists that the gift of faith that is apprehending God with spiritual senses is available to anyone who asks for us – it isn’t for especially spiritual people but the ungodly, whose only plea is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When God restores spiritual sight, what exactly do we see? Wesley claims four things: the presence of God in whom we live, move and have our being; an awareness of love; mercy and goodness of God; the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins and our status of adoption as a child of God (Rom 8:16) – the holy spirit directly communicates with our spirit that we are welcomed into God’s family. One’s perceptive experiences can serve as a witness and encouragement to others. Charles Wesley’s many familiar hymns, for example, are rife with references to perceptive experiences.
Dr. Koskela discusses four key concerns in talking about perceptive experiences. The first is theological: the suspicion of private revelation. The worry here is what people might do or claim with private revelations of God. But Wesley himself was suspicious of this, writing, “There is a real influence of the Spirit of God, there is also an imaginary one, there are those who suppose they are under the influence of God when they are not and more so than they really are.” His concern is why he clarified that these gifts do not function as a source of new theology; God can indeed speak a fresh word to the Church but it would fall into a different category – perhaps that of prophecy.
A second corner is psychological: if one has been taught by one’s community to feel these spiritual senses, we should not be surprised if that’s what happens. Also known as the power of suggestion, it’s difficult to tell if this would have registered for Wesley, but Wesley was not offering an authenticating apparatus of these senses, but rather an explanation of when they happen. Also, he might have said that these experiences cannot be put into words. Wesley did not believe the suggestion of the experience would in fact induce it precisely because such spiritual experiences are ineffable – one does not know what to anticipate.
Two pastoral concerns about spiritual experiences exist as well. First, the weariness of the idea of excessive intense, religious experiences – such as summer-camp conversions, conversion narratives that involved flip-switch moments, the ostracizing by the broader community that can attend such experiences – can lead a spiritual leader away from attempting to make safe space for spiritual experiences and discussing them. But if taken in conjunction with the axiom that Christianity is a lifelong conversion process, it may be easier to include spiritual experiences in our discussions and not simply pressure people to have them.
The second pastoral concern is perhaps the most important, thus it is crucial to process with the utmost of care: what about those unable, due to trauma, cognitive differences, etc., to have perceptive experiences? In terms of traumatic experiences, Dr. Koskela exhorts us to pray for healing; we are not demanding it and it is not a sign of lack of faith if it does not happen. It is essential that we recognize spiritual senses as an extension of God’s grace not the extent of God’s grace. Wesley himself ultimately came to the conclusion that anyone can be saved, even those that cannot consciously experience the presence of God can be saved and that is because salvation, much like perceptive experiences, can only come from God.
So how communities might cultivate environments that facilitate these experiences? How might we make room to talk about these experiences? Dr. Koskela offers three possible answers: 1) Our teaching must attend to both what Christians believe and why. This is not apologetics or arguments for the existence of God (it’s not why Christians should believe, but why they actually believe). 2) We need spaces and opportunities to talk about our own spiritual experiences. Wesley noted that it may prompt someone else to at least open the door to similar experiences. Open discussions will encourage honesty and patience in the community as well as foster opportunities for airing frustrations and struggles. 3) We must emphasize that God prompts these experiences, we do not manufacture them. We must avoid pressuring people. Ultimately, we tell the story, we tell our stories, we repent, we trust and then we hold on.
Dr. Rob McKenna, also a graduate from SPU as well as chair of Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology Department at SPU and one of the most 30 most influential I-O Psych people in the world today, offered a response to Dr. Koskela’s lecture by affirming that experience has been a big part of his work for most of his career and how many people, just under their veneer of detachment and transactional relating, very much desire to connect more deeply around their experiences. So, Dr. McKenna asks, are we willing to give our own testimonies or is the depth of our faith going to be summed up by our dogma? Our culture tells us that spiritual experiences are irrelevant; it takes tremendous courage to have these conversations about our experiences. But what would it look like if we were more open to questions like, “What does it mean to have the eyes of your understanding opened?” or “How do we know what is evil and what is God’s truth?” or “How do you trust that someone has their eyes wide open? How do I know to trust myself and those around me?”
The idea that truth is relative and that we have an accurate hold on the truth are both very problematic. Dr. McKenna urges us to remember Wesley’s comment: It is those that are unholy, whose only plea is God have mercy on me, a sinner? I trust in the experience of Moses because it begins, “I don’t talk so good.” I trust in the experience of King David because he says, “I come from a family of nobodies.” I trust in Jesus because when He was alone, He begged, “Please let this cup pass from me.” It is through our humility, then, that we approach spiritual experiences, remembering that it is finally about God and knowing God’s love for us ever more fully.
Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2015