David Wells in his seminal book, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1993) deplored the way in which so many Evangelical Christians in the USA have given up on using their minds, with the result that theology no longer held the key to Christian identity:As a result, he said:
We … do not see through the paper-thin piety that so often passes for godliness today, the empty and childish stories that are served up as sermons from the pulpit week in too many evangelical churches, the casual choral singing that masquerades as deep worship in too many services, as if celebrating good feelings were the same thing as rendering to God his due in wonder, love and adoration.
The situation, of course, is no different here in the UK. A mark of the prevailing mood of post-modern and post-denominational age is that feelings have become as important as ‘truth’ – if not more so. So when Christians move for one reason or another they have to move to another locality, they engage in ‘church shopping’; the concern is less for the denominational label but rather for the church where one ‘feels good’. Here what counts is the warmth of the welcome, the liveliness of the worship, the charisma of the preacher – and not the theology which underlies that particular expression of church.
Of course there is a place for feelings – but surely too there is a place for the mind? I find it significant that when Jesus quoted from the ‘Shema’ found in Deut 6.5, according to Mark 12.30 he added a further injunction calling his disciples “with all your mind” – while according to according to Matt 23.36 he replaced the call to love God “with your strength” with the call to love God “with all your mind”. Thinking was important for Jesus – and should be important to us too. There is no place in the church for anti-intellectualism. In the words of John Wesley:
It is a fundamental principle that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.
On the other hand, truth need not – and should not – be cold and dry. Indeed, according F.W. Faber, one of the ‘apostles’ of the 19th century Oxford Movement and the author of many fine hymns: “Deep theology is the best fuel of devotion; it readily catches fire, and once kindled it burns long”. Certainly, if we are to win people for Jesus Christ and his church, we need to appeal to their hearts as well as to their minds. It is when hearts are touched that minds are willing to take a fresh look at the truth as it is in Jesus. In this regard I find it significant that Grace Davie, the doyenne of the sociology of religion in Britain, highlights the role that ‘experience’ plays in church growth today. In Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (Wiley Blackwell, Oxford, 2nd edition 2015) she writes:
In the current period the actively religious are disproportionately drawn to two kinds of religious organisations: charismatic evangelical churches on the one hand and cathedrals or city-centre churches on the other. The former epitomize firm commitments, strong fellowship and conservative teaching, balanced by the warmth of a charismatic experience. The latter allows a much more individual (even anonymous) expression of religious commitment: in ‘cathedral-type’ churches the appeal is often associated with the beauty of the building, the quality of the music and the traditional nature of the liturgy. The important point to grasp is that in both cases there is a noticeable experiential element, albeit very different expressed.
Feelings are not to be pooh-poohed – they are part of our God-given make-up. Hence we are to love the Lord our God not just with our minds, but our hearts too. This in turn means that in our presentation of the Christian Gospel we are to appeal to the hearts and minds of our contemporaries. Indeed, with the Psalmist we might well say: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34. 8). Christian believing is not just rational – it is also experimental; Christian believing involves the mind and the heart.
A refreshing article, clearly presenting a critique of the modern evangelical movement, in light of the crux of biblical Christianity of loving God and neighbour with both heart and mind. In the last sentence, the word, “experiential,” might serve better than “experimental.” However, well done!
I think Paul used “experimental” in the old-fashioned sense of the word – which does, indeed, imply “experiential”!
Yes, I agree that it is a good article. Some forms of Reformed Christianity possibly became too affected by Modernity and became so logical and rational that they forget the experience of God. Some forms of Evangelicalism, possibly rejected “liberalism” and the idea that all religious belief should be placed under the magnifying-glass of rigorous human examination, became rabidly anti-intellectual and privileged experience over reason. This was then a happy hunting ground for Postmodernity (itself surely a product of Existentialism) in which experience is the only basis for personal authenticity.