Plenty of “Religious Experience” – Yet Without Excuse

Plenty of “Religious Experience” – Yet Without Excuse

© Tomasz Rzymkiewicz – Fotolia.com

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them . . . So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)

Martin Heidegger, 20th century German philosopher, is not the most likely candidate for a lengthy analysis on this blog. But here goes!

Heidegger described the shift into “modernity” in his book, The Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger, himself a lapsed Roman Catholic, notes (in the chapter called “The Age of the World as Picture”) that one of the phenomenon of the modern age was “the loss of the gods,” which is “the situation of indecision regarding God and the gods.” In other words, Heidegger is describing the modern shift away from a firm and sure understanding of who God is; he is describing modern skepticism.

Man has abandoned the Christian understanding of God
Further on he says that Man has become the “subject”. To put it crudely, Heidegger says that man has become the centre of his own universe – everything revolves around him. How has this occured? “In the emancipation of men . . . from obligation to Christian revelational truth and Church doctrine.” Man has abandoned the Christian understanding of God, and he himself fills the void. He is his own “unshakable foundation of truth.” Heidegger is, of course, simply describing what the passage from Romans 1 describes: rebellion against God. And God darkens our foolish hearts as a consequence.

Heidegger has another pertinent observation to make, though. This is what jumped out at me when I read Technology. Heidegger sees that this disconnection from the firm foundation of Christianity and biblical revelation, does not constitute an “excluding [of] religiosity.” Religion, he says, is not dead. It is transformed into “religious experience.” What Heidegger lays out here is a process of separation from what Christians would describe as the firm foundation of biblical truth, and this rebellion against God results, not in a lack of religion, but a religion that is transformed from an objective truth claim into a “religious experience”.

Paul goes on in Romans 1:21-23 to say that:

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Some Christians worship a god they know nothing about!
Paul says that Man rebels against God and does not honour him, and they become foolish. Heidegger describes how, in removing God from the picture, Mankind has reduced religion to “religious experience.” A quick browse around the world of modern religion, and even the modern church (take a quick look through the ‘Holy Spirit’ shelves at Koorong!) illustrates this. Some Christians worship a god they know nothing about! They do not read their Bibles, and Bible is not taught at their churches, so their faith is reduced to religious experience!

This is not meant to be a finger-pointing exercise. I have a plank in my own eye, so I shouldn’t worry much about the speck in the local Pentacostal’s eye. I would implore every Christian to not forget about who the God that you worship is. My religion can, at times, be reduced to an experience of being a moral person. Someone else’s could be reduced to an experience of speaking in tongues, or swooning to the latest “contemporary Christian-Pop song”. Another might find themselves simply intellectualising about God. The point is that we must know God.

Paul in Romans 1:21 says that people did know God, but they did not honour him, and he darkened their hearts. Whether or not you think Heidegger is right on this, it remains true that our focus must be the knowledge of God, knowing God personally. Otherwise, we may be left with darkened hearts and a meaningless experience.

11 Comments

  1. Martin Pakula

    Thanks Simon. Very interesting! I very much agree with your main point about our trivialisation of God, whom we replace with trinkets, experience, moralism, etc.
    I’m not suggesting elitism or being intellectual for its own sake, but I find the antidote is in serious study of God’s word, especially my own, but also using good commentaries and reading serious Christian books. The problem is that so many Christians who are into experience, whether charismatics or not, decry such things as “head knowledge” and glorify their ignorance.
    The bottom line for me is that going to a Christian concert may be easy, and studying God’s word to understand it and apply it to myself is just plain hard work. The devil will do whatever he can to stop me doing it, as I well know myself.

    • Simon (Author)

      I agree with you Martin. I think in certain Christian circles, head knowledge is really denounced and at times ridiculed. I have a Christian friend who is attending a sound, Reformed bible college, who was told by an older Christian that he shouldn’t go to seminary because there’s no point. The Holy Spirit can tell you what you need to know. I think this is reflective of much of the evangelical movements today, and much of this sort of thinking represents an abandonment of the authority of scripture.

      On the other hand, existential aspects of faith are mocked and denounced by people in our own reformed circles. This is partly a reaction against the excesses of the Pentacostal movement, and partly a legacy of the reformed response to the Second Great Awakening, and partly cold intellectualism. John Frame advocates a ‘multi-perspectival’ approach to Christian thought and practice, which includes an existential perspective. He is not a charismatic; he does think that parts of the church are ignoring the value of the affections and experience. There’s ditches on both sides of the road, I suppose.

  2. Adam

    Hi Simon,

    I told myself last time that I shouldn’t stir the pot. But, alas, I am forgetful.

    I haven’t read a great deal of Heidegger. I would be interested in reading what you have quoted. To what extent, do you think, he is describing what Paul calls a rebellion against God? I would have imagined that it was not so much rebellion as it was shift in the intellectual, experiential milieu whereby the governing image and understanding of the Christian God lost its former status. It wasn’t through a sheer rebellion against God, but a shift in, dare I say, world-view that Man becomes the central subject. The irony is that the shift is very closely tied to Christian figures such as Descartes and Kierkegaard and through the Reformation by which the ‘sacred canopy’ (a former widespread authoritative knowledge of God), as Berger describes, is lost.

    So, I guess, I am wondering to what extent is that rebellion? To my mind it is a shift in the conditions of knowledge and experience for which all those who come after such a large-scale societal transformation cannot be held accountable as those who once knew God but have decided to rebel against him. Surely, one must be aware of their rebellion for it to be meaningful.

    Incidentally, I am currently reading about a group of Christians in Zimbabwe who identify as “the Christians who do not read the Bible”. They take their faith very seriously, to the extent that they rely directly on a one-to-one relationship with God without material distractions. They would say that their knowledge of God comes through personal experience with God, rather than through the distortions of a written text.

    Interesting… interesting stuff.

    Cheers,
    Adam

    • Simon (Author)

      Adam, thanks for the comment. And, yes, you should try and “remember” what you said last time! No, not at all. I appreciate your thoughts.

      I think that what Heidegger describes is a very profound, if unintentional, parallel of what Paul writes in Romans 1. I do believe that what is written in Romans 1 is true, that every person has knowledge of the true God, and yet supresses (implying a deliberate action) that truth. Paul describes a rebellion that is deliberate. I understand that there are limitations to our knowing other’s hearts and minds, but as you probably know, I’m inclined to trust what Paul writes here.

      I’ve been studying the shift that you mention via Descartes and Kierkegaard. Arendt and Heidegger both write about it. Arendt does so in The Human Condition, including Neitzche and Marx as key figures. I think Arendt and Heidegger are in agreeance with Paul in what they see occuring on a large and wide scale in the intellectual, experiential milieu in recent centuries. Heidegger’s language is, in my opinion, implicating mankind for their own “emancipation”, or rebellion. My reading of him is debatable, and I’m not a Heidegger expert either. It is a highly striking passage of writing, regardless of your opinion on Romans 1.

      • Adam

        Hmm, yeah, Arendt would no doubt be a good read.

        My comment to your opinion on the affinity between Romans 1 and Heidegger would be this. Firstly, that we actually do have a great deal of information about the hearts and minds of people throughout the world through an expansive ethnographic record. Of course this is not complete, but it is a tremendous insight into the inner lives of people in various cultural contexts. Secondly, and perhaps because of my first point, I will say that I think Paul (and forgive me for saying so) is rather ignorant of the hearts and minds of everyone throughout the human history.

        Perhaps I misunderstand what Paul means by a deliberate action of rebellion against God. But in order to “exchange the truth about God for a lie”, or to make the claim that God’s revelation is clearly visible or apparent to all humans, then it must assume a particular teleology; one that is not common to all humans. If we actually stop and look at the multiplicity of cosmological, teleological conceptions of reality, it is very problematic to claim that God’s revelation has been made equally apparent and clearly visible to all humankind. This, I would argue, is clearly not the case. It is, therefore, a problem to claim that everyone has rebelled against God – an understanding and knowledge of whom they never had.

        Also, just to clarify, when you say implicating mankind for their own ’emancipation’ or ‘rebellion’, do you mean collectively or as individuals? Perhaps this works in a similar way to original sin, whereby sin enters the world through one man so that everyone is inherently sinful. Rebellion occurs once upon a time so that everyone is inherently rebellious. However, again, if this is the case, then we need to differentiate rebellion as a will-full individual action and rebellion as a collective state.

        • Simon (Author)

          Adam, on the collective or individual responsibility for sin issue, I’ll give a fairly brief answer. Whole books have been written on this subject, so this is scratching surface in one respect. On the other hand, the Bible is perspicuous on the matter.

          Staying in Romans, Paul writes that everyone is sinful, and is held individually responsible(3:9-18, 3:22b-23). Equally important, though, is the truth of all being “in” Adam, and therefore all being implicated in the event of the Fall (5:12-14). Adam is the head of the covenant, the ‘federal head’ if you will. His federal headship means everyone under his headship is under the curse of the covenant: death. Paul goes on to say that Christ is the federal head of the New Covenant, and in him we may have the blessings of that covenant: life (5:15-21). So it’s both individual and corporate.

      • Don (Author)

        See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. ((Colossians 2:8)

  3. SDG

    Adam,
    Welcome back!

    I am interested in the last paragraph of your comments.
    You have a strange definition of Christian. A Christian has a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, through faith and obedience. If you walk with Him, you want to be like Him, and His attitude to the Bible is very different to the caricature of ‘through the distortions of a written text’.

    Perhaps you would like to be a bit more specific about the ‘distortions’ you had in mind, as I can only read of One in whom are hid all the treasures and wisdom and knowledge. I find no fault or distortion in the record of Jesus. Quite the reverse.
    SDG

  4. Adam

    Hi SDG

    Here’s a link to the book I was referring to.

    You would have to read it for yourself. I’m not really in a position to sum up their reasons for deciding not focus on scripture. I don’t think they contest that it is God’s words, but they have a different sense of its relevance for their own time and place. I don’t think they would say that the Bible is distorted, but rather that it can distract you from a direct relationship with the Spirit. Because the Bible itself is material (as opposed the immateriality of the Spirit of God), it is considered to some extent as mundane as opposed to transcendent. This, from my understanding, is why they rely on a direct immaterial relationship with the Spirit rather than the text.

    Again, I’m not really endorsing anything. I am one of those misguided people who just finds this stuff interesting. 🙂

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.