Seeking experiences

Every once in a while, something comes up that makes me start pondering about experiential religion. Last time that happened, I ended up in a rather nasty argument with an ’emergent Church’ type. But, I evidently didn’t learn my lesson, since here I go again:

I had two conversations tonight about my favorite topic, the first after a talk on religion vs. science at school, when a Mormon, a more liberal Catholic, a conservative Episcopalian (yes, they exist), and I started discussing reasons for believing. The Mormon basically boiled it down to personal experience. I, of course, reject that entirely, because human beings have a nearly infinite capacity for self-deception. The second conversation was with one of our fellow bloggers, who had fallen into the trap of equating feelings with faith but has since come out of that particularly nasty funk. Our faith is rational and suprarational, so it should not ebb and flow with our volatile feelings. But, I digress.

I wondered whether I could find some writings from a saint to back up my stance, and I hit gold:

St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book II, Chapter 11:

8. It is always well, then, that the soul should reject these things, and close its eyes to them, whencesoever they come. For, unless it does so, it will prepare the way for those things that come from the devil, and will give him such influence that, not only will his visions come in place of God’s, but his visions will begin to increase, and those of God to cease, in such manner that the devil will have all the power and God will have none. So it has happened to many incautious and ignorant souls, who rely on these things to such an extent that many of them have found it hard to return to God in purity of faith; and many have been unable to return, so securely has the devil rooted himself in them; for which reason it is well to resist and reject them all. For, by the rejection of evil visions, the errors of the devil are avoided, and by the rejection of good visions no hindrance is offered to faith and the spirit harvests the fruit of them. And just as, when the soul allows them entrance, God begins to withhold them because the soul is becoming attached to them and is not profiting by them as it should, while the devil insinuates and increases his own visions, where he finds occasion and cause for them; just so, when the soul is resigned, or even averse to them, the devil begins to desist, since he sees that he is working it no harm; and contrariwise God begins to increase and magnify His favours in a soul that is so humble and detached, making it ruler over many things, even as He made the servant who was faithful in small things.

12. It is clear, then, that these sensual apprehensions and visions cannot be a means to union, since they bear no proportion to God; and this was one of the reasons why Christ desired that the Magdalene and Saint Thomas should not touch Him. And so the devil rejoices greatly when a soul desires to receive revelations, and when he sees it inclined to them, for he has then a great occasion and opportunity to insinuate errors and, in so far as he is able, to derogate from faith; for, as I have said, he renders the soul that desires them very gross, and at times even leads it into many temptations and unseemly ways.

Read the whole chapter.

So, we must stop seeking visions and sensory experiences, stop seeking that ‘burning in the bosom’. Our faith is the Truth, and the Truth does not rely upon such things. Satan can and will deceive, and no one is easier to deceive than he who is looking for confirmation in his feelings.

EDIT: one more thing that came out of tonight’s conversations… Things aren’t ‘true for me’ or ‘true for you,’ they’re either true, or false. If the Holy Spirit is telling you that Joseph Smith received revelation from God, and He’s telling me that special revelation ended with the Apostles, one of us is wrong. (I’ll let you read a friend’s book to find out which one.) Pluralism is silly, or worse. It’s that simple.

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