need that lovin' feelin? Jesus or magic mushrooms?
I almost enjoyed Mark Galli's essay in Christianity Today called The End of Christianity as we know it. He wrote in response to a recent NYT article (proving that blogging is mostly a midrash of the NYT) regarding medical use of hallucinogenics to treat depression and anecdotes of their induction of transcendent experiences. The NYT article probably was recycled from the 1950's. These aren't new assertions. Neither am I saying they are false assertions. Galli doesn't either. For the sake of his argument, he let's it lie, then proceeds to wonder whether the American church need exert so much energy on creating worship experiences so that people can encounter God. Perhaps he should ask that of all those cathedral builders. Perhaps he should have asked Solomon to reconsider building the temple his father David designed. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Galli writes,
From the point of view of experience, it seems it's impossible to tell the difference between drug-induced and "natural" mystical experiences. Both are powerful. Both enable people to enjoy a transcendent moment. Both seem capable of transforming people so that they feel a greater sense of empathy for and unity with other people—what most people would call love.Basically, like any good evangelical, he wants his readers to know, you can't base your relationship with God on your feelings. True. It reminds me of something from Bonhoeffer's wedding sermon, written as a nuptial sermon for his niece and best friend, while he sat in jail. He wrote, "It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love." Yes, feelings are not the core of commitment, but they can make the commitment easier. For Galli, the crux of the issue for him is this, "If religious experience is something that a drug can induce even more easily than spiritual ritual and disciplines, it may be time, for example, to rethink what many churches are trying to do on Sunday morning: create a memorable 'worship experience.'" However, as many recovering addicts can tell him, those experiences are not gifts that keep on giving. The transcendence of your first week of nicotine can never be repeated. But it's a low cost, low level flight, the cost of the ticket being cancer many decades down the road. As the altitudes increase, depending on the vehicle used, the greater the danger of frequent flying and the greater the danger of relationship destruction. No one enjoys being around someone who is high all the time. That person can't support themselves and become economic, emotional, and even physical leaches on those around them.
* * *
This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience."
Those who seek religious transcendence do not accrue the same costs, unless they are in spiritually abusive systems from $cientology to high demand prophet centered cults of Christianity or other world religions. But even "normal" religious experiences are not unique to Christianity, which Galli is not afraid to point out. "In short, what Christians uniquely have to offer the world is not religious experience or even a unique religious way of life. We're not hawking 'your best religion now,' for our religion, upon close examination, seems no more admirable or sinful than any other religion. Christianity stands under the judgment and grace of God—as do all religions."
So what sets us apart. I quoted Eric Metaxas's biography on Bonhoeffer coming to the same point, like a difficult pitch coming to a talented batter. Bonhoeffer has the talent to find plenty of ball to connect with and send it far.
"Factually speaking," he said, "Christ has given scarcely any ethical prescriptions that were not to be found already with the contemporary Jewish rabbis or in pagan literature." Christianity was not about a new and better set of behavioral rules or about moral accomplishment. He must have shocked some of his listeners, but his logic was undeniably compelling. He then aggressively attacked the idea of "religion" and moral performance as the very enemies of Christianity and of Christ because they present the false idea that somehow we can reach God through our moral efforts. This led to hubris and spiritual pride, the sworn enemies of Christianity. "Thus," he said, "the Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound."Now that was a loud crack of the bat. The ball might not have cleared the fences, but at least the fielders have to chase it around. Galli is not Bonhoeffer. His response to this tricky pitch seems to me like a dribbler up the base line. He offers,
The Christian faith is, at its core, not about ethics or religious experience, but a message about a God who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be and remain on our side, to become the-God-with-a-name, Emmanuel, "God with us." Christians are not primarily mystics (those who experience God in a special way) or activists (those who live the way of Jesus). We are mostly witnesses of who God is and what he has done and what he will do in Jesus Christ, the God who in Christ has "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10).Yes, and...certainly there is more coming. He concludes,
People will never figure this all out—and thus never be able to enjoy a full and saving encounter with God—unless someone tells them. And who will tell them if no one's been sent, because we're mostly creating wonderful worship experiences and teaching mere ethics?Bonhoeffer provokes me, Galli lulls me to sleep. With such strong points at the front of the essay, he leaves me with this?
People are finding transcendence by getting high.
It's easier to get high than to experience God.
Churches are wasting their time competing with drugs.
Churches are wasting their time preaching morals. All religions do that.
If the church can only offer sub-prime transcendence and average morality, what's then left?
We are the only one who have a story of a God who loves us and seeks to re-unite with us.
So get on out there and tell it.
That conclusion didn't answer the difficulties. This solution sucks. It doesn't sound any better than the alternatives. How does that solution answer the desire for transcendence?
There is a large missing connection in this essay. The topic is there, love, but it is not applied. Falling in love produces transcendence. Chemicals, from the simple, ethanol, to the complex, psilocybin, produce a rush of chemicals in our brains that affect our perceptions of reality. The initial wave of love is intoxicating. It can so affect us that it becomes the new normal for us. We can even get bored with it, leading some to move on quickly. It's the "marriage that sustains your love." It's those date nights that blow fresh on that steady state of love. It's the intimacy in all it's forms, emotional, sexual, spiritual, that blow on that flame of love.
St. Paul tells us that marriage is a picture of Jesus's relationship with the church in Ephesians 5:22-33. Those weekly worship "experiences" are like those date nights. They are times when we seek together to taste heaven. Heaven is God's home base. It's the place he will bring us after we die. It's the place where we will experience his love to the fullest extent possible. The experience will be so amazing he will provide us with new bodies to accommodate it.
Galli asks a good question, which he doesn't answer so well, "So, to hear that people can have even more powerful religious experiences without Christian faith gives us pause. It's a lot of work to fast and pray and worship and deny oneself—and even then, experiencing God is a hit or miss proposition! What's the fuss if we can pop a mushroom and have a nearly guaranteed religious experience?" Because the chemical lies and we know it. But the need for love, a love that will cover a multitude of sins, both the wounds we cause and wounds done to us, is so deep, makes it's experience transcendent. We were born to be loved.
But what of other religions? They too, like the chemicals, can bring about the sensation of transcendence. But no other path points to a source of the transcendence. Doesn't a belief of dissolving into the cosmic nothingness while transcending take a little something off the buzz? Does the ambition to lose all ambition and desire make that need to be loved go away? Does seeking to appease a deity who might or might not accept your efforts even bring a buzz? Without love, it's acting, it's prostitution, it's hypocrisy. Religiosity and transcendence, even transcendent religiosity, disconnected from love are nothing. Again, I'm only repeating something this Jewish follower of Jesus said 1900 years ago, 1 Corinthians 13.
Ultimately, Galli is right. The answer is, as Barth said, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." But like the typical evangelical who my friends tend to ignore, the gap between the options and the answer was never bridged.
Drugs provide a loveless transcendence that kills.
Religion provides a loveless transcendence that lies.
Jesus loves which brings about transcendence.