I was once told that my relationship with God cannot be based on simply knowing about him, but must also be based on experiencing him. I was in high school, and while I felt like I had a pretty solid relationship with God, this youth leader proceeded to point out that I was not very emotional or expressive about my faith. What I was passionate about (that he didn’t seem to notice) was learning about God. I spent several years after that discussion wondering what was wrong with me. I could look around and see people having these wonderfully expressive and emotional spiritual experiences, but I could never really get all hyped up like they could.
If you know me, you know that I am not an emotional person. I once teared up at my grandfather’s funeral, but that’s only the second time in my adult life I remember almost crying. It’s not that I think emotions are bad, I just tend toward analytical processing over emotional. This has given me a unique perspective in my spiritual journey, one that that youth pastor couldn’t relate to.
It also allows me to offer this “mirror” warning: Your relationship with God should not be based solely on experiencing him, but also on knowledge of him. And I honestly believe this is a problem in the American church. We have made Christianity all about the experience, at the expense of pursuing knowledge. We are afraid, perhaps, that too much information will spoil our buzz.
Ask the average American Christian about their faith, and they will almost certainly tell you about God’s love for them, their love for God, how their faith makes them feel hopeful, secure, joyous. Ask them about Calvinism (for example), and you’ll be met with blank stares. I’m not suggesting the first answers are bad, nor that everyone should have a deep understanding of Calvinism, but when a huge percentage of a population has knowledge as deep as a frisbee, we are bound to have problems.
I know that Joel Osteen is an easy target, but he’s familiar, so I’ll go with it. The reason he has such mass appeal, and the reason he makes some people’s ears melt (including mine), are the same. He preaches (if you can call it that) a Prosperity Gospel that is all about how you feel, and is utterly devoid of substance. Even late night comedian Stephan Colbert, when asking him about his book, The Power of I Am, expected it to be a reference to God as the “I Am”. He was quickly corrected by Osteen, who went on to tell him about how powerful positive thinking could be in your life, no need for theology.
I believe that this over reliance on emotion and skepticism of knowledge has even deeper ramifications. It relieves Christians of the need to think for themselves, and replaces it with a herd mentality that we can just do what all the other Christians are doing. I can go with the flow as long as I get to hear some encouraging words on Sunday. Not so sure you agree with what that pastor, politician, or Christian TV personality said? Oh well, don’t worry about it. He listens to worship music too, and it’s not like we have anything objective to judge it against, right?
Thankfully, there are opportunities to build your knowledge. At LFA, we have Truth for Living classes, Alpha, and events like the Parent Summit where we can gain useful knowledge and begin to think critically about what we’ve been told. Information and understanding are not to be feared, nor is it a waste of time to study theology, science, global politics, etc. We need to stop “dumbing down” Christianity in the American church. Faith can begin and be expressed through emotional experience, but it is grown and strengthened through knowledge of God’s word and his plan for humanity. Emotions come and go, but knowledge tends to stick around.