Experience, Reason, And Revelation
Noah Millman has a good post up about the tension between experience and divine revelation in the religious consciousness. He’s responding to David Sessions’s objections to a post I wrote likening his experience of de-converting from Christianity to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s experience of conversion. Sessions wrote critically about the experience of losing religious faith (as he has done), saying that to “convert” to unbelief is not simply a matter of reasoning, but also involves experiential factors that cannot be downplayed. I pointed out that this goes both ways, and used the conversion story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former lesbian and women’s studies professor turned Evangelical wife, as an example of the power of experience to set the bounds within which reason operates.
Sessions resists the comparison. Excerpt:
There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes in this passage is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor. For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family? For a former scholar, Butterfield shows remarkably little philosophical skepticism; she also seems to cast aside her training in how to review and evaluate the available evidence to determine if these views she’s been introduced to are reasonable or even widely considered to be Christian.
In fact, it’s her theological incuriosity that’s perhaps most surprising. As Patrol’s Kenneth Sheppard wrote, analyzing the problems with Butterfield’s conversion narrative: “the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor.”
I think this is a fundamental misreading of the religious consciousness, one that (unconsciously) privileges rationalism. Before I make my own observations, here’s something from Millman (whose entire essay you should read):
If I understand his objection, what he’s saying is that while his own de-conversion was motivated by experience, social context, and emotion, and not merely by intellectual argument, he feels like Butterfield’s conversion is explicitly a rejection of the process of intellection. And, for that reason, he finds it problematic and troubling, quite apart from not being parallel to his own experience.
I see his point, but I’m not sure he’s really grasping the nettle. It’s comforting to think that the liberal, secular mind is simply more open than the religious, but in my experience you can find plenty of closed-minded people in both camps, and the more open-minded have different points of stress where they turn away from the possibility of uncomfortable truths. There are very, very few individuals who approximate a truly Socratic level of openness to doubt about their own knowledge.
The nettle, I think, is that the qualities of their respective experiences are incommensurate. What I hear when I read the descriptions of Butterfield’s experience is, most primally, the experience of being commanded. The feeling that an authority has instructions for her, and that she must obey them. Sessions’s de-conversion contained no trace of that feeling.
Is that feeling a good thing or a bad thing? Something to be embraced or something to be analyzed and demystified? That question is a very central one to adherents of (or objectors to) the Abrahamic religious traditions. But you won’t get anywhere in trying to understand that question if you start from the proposition that God’s commands ought to be reasonable. [Emphasis mine — RD]
This is a fundamental point. Millman explains well why you cannot understand Biblical religion if you expect everything to make perfect sense, especially (he might have added) to a 21st century Westerner. What is reasonable about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What is reasonable about God incarnating as a Palestinian Jew and willingly suffering torture and dying, humiliated? God cannot be contained by human reason. This is not to deny the power (and the importance) of reason, only to put it in its proper place.
A friend passed on Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s memoir to me yesterday. The idea that “scholarship,” in Sessions’s word, should have dissuaded her from her encounter with God is remarkably uncomprehending. Here’s a relevant passage from the book:
That night, I prayed, and asked God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too. I viscerally felt the living presence of God as I prayed. Jesus seemed present and alive. I knew that I was not alone in my room. I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that he would change my heart. And if he was real and if I was his, I prayed that he would give me the strength of mind to follow him and the character to become a godly woman. I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like sin at all — it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his life, that he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be. I asked him to take it all: my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books, and my tomorrows.
Two incommensurable worldviews clashed together: the reality of my lived experience and the truth of the word of God. In continental philosophy, we talk about the difference between the true and the real. Had my life become real, but not true? The Bible told me to repent, but I didn’t feel like repenting. Do you have to feel like repenting in order to repent? Was I a sinner, or was I, in my drag queen friend’s words, sick? How do you repent for a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin? How could the thing that I had studied and become be sinful? How could I and everyone that I knew and loved be in sin? In this crucible of confusion, I learned something important. I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
When Christ gave me the strength to follow him, I didn’t stop feeling like a lesbian. I’ve discovered that the Lord doesn’t change my feelings until I obey him. During one sermon, Ken pointed to John 7:17, and called this “the hermeneutics of obedience.” Jesus is speaking in this passage, and he says: “If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak it from myself.” Ah ha! Here it was! Obedience comes before understanding. I wanted to understand. But did I actually will to do his will? God promised to reveal this understanding to me if I “willed to do his will.” The Bible doesn’t just say do his will, but “will to do his will.” Wanting to understand is a theoretical statement; willing to do his will takes action.
I’ve not finished the book yet, but I’ve gone far enought in it to assure you that Butterfield, now a Reformed Presbyterian, goes on to chastise Christians who speak hatefully of gay people. Furthermore, she strongly criticizes Christians who set homosexuality apart from other sins, as if it were uniquely despised by the All-Holy. Even after her conversion, she praises her transgender friend for being kind and wise. And she also has strong words for Christians who make the process of conversion seem like an easy-peasy, say-the-sinner’s-prayer event; she makes clear that conversion is an ongoing process, and that it is hard.
Anyway, notice what happens in this passage. She has a numinous experience in prayer, one that convinces her that God is real. Even though she does not feel that anything she’s doing is wrong (“it felt like life, plain and simple”), she is told by the Bible that it is wrong, and now she’s experienced a numinous presence that she interprets as a manifestation of the God of the Bible. What do you do with that? She concedes that the Biblical view not only seemed unreasonable based on what she believed to be true, but it also felt unreasonable. And yet, how was she to deny her mystical experience? It was real — but was it true?
She could have easily rationalized it away. I did, before my conversion. And I ultimately arrived at the same place Butterfield did: realizing that what I thought was an intellectual problem was actually a volitional problem. That is, I kept telling myself God had to make sense before I would believe in Him and commit myself to Him, when the truth was that I had no intention of subjecting my will to His. Until I was willing to sacrifice everything for unity with Him, I would not find it. It was only when I crossed that boundary that I was able to start understanding this thing called Christianity.
For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family?
Well, the God of the Bible most certainly has a point of view about homosexuality, and it’s negative. Christianity does require her to submit her will before she is fully capable of understanding. Does it make sense that a Christian God would break up a happy family? Said Jesus, in Luke 14: “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life! Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.”
The point is, all of these things are present in the Bible, and abundantly clear. Christianity is a radical thing! True religion always is.
Now, it is certainly the case that Butterfield could have been deceived when she prayed and felt the presence of God. She could have hallucinated it. It could have been an evil spirit. The interesting thing in her account is that she didn’t want to believe that she would have to give up everything to follow Him. The picture she paints of her LGBT community is not one of a freak show, but of a community that gave her a sense of belonging and meaning. Yet she could not ignore the call she felt God put on her life. There is far more depth and nuance to her book than you might think.
On the other hand, what sense do we make of a gay Christian who prays and who sincerely believes that God has approved of his homosexuality, and has called him to preach that message? An orthodox Christian would tell him that he is rationalizing an emotional experience, or possibly was visited by an evil spirit masquerading as God. The orthodox Christian would point out that the God of the Bible wouldn’t possibly bless that view, because it runs so contrary to Scripture. The orthodox Christian would reason from within the standard Christian framework, which holds the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.
Similarly, what would a Christian say to a fellow Christian who had a numinous experience that caused him to embrace Islam? What would a Muslim say to a fellow believer who converted to Christianity after a road-to-Damascus experience? In both cases, the faithful believer would presumably try to reason from within their common tradition, to convince the apostate that they were wrong. But the process of conversion may well have begun with an experience that shatters the common agreement on what is rational. As Millman writes:
Primal experience is possible within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. It can be rejected or “explained away” within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. And it is potentially disruptive of all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike.
Very true. None of us should take comfort in this truth. In Dante, natural reason can take you far up the mountain towards virtue, but at some point, if human nature is to be perfected, one must be humble enough to embrace revelation. You don’t have to be a Christian or any sort of religious person at all to accept that Reason cannot stand alone. At some point, you have to accept “Revelation,” by which I mean accepting that there are some first premises that you hold to be true even though you cannot account for them objectively. This “revelation” is the foundation of one’s reasoning, and sets its boundaries.
(I’m going to stop here with this post, but let me say this: I’m not going to publish rants about the wickedness of Christianity for its anti-LGBTness, or anything like that. If you want to talk about experience, reason, and revelation, great, let’s talk. But do not use the comboxes to pontificate.)