Here, I will raise more questions than answers, in the hope that some of my readers might have ideas. The problem at hand is the role of experience in faith, broadly defined, to include not just what we would think of as ecstatic experience, but also experience of community, doctrine etc. – in the broadest sense perhaps even the experience of God via a sacramentally charged creation, what some might call natural theology.
I have a vexed relationship with spiritual experience. I grew up in an Evangelical tradition in which one’s degree of faith was measured in terms of experiential capital. Those who did not experience had “head knowledge, not heart knowledge,” and it was well known that the personal experience of Christ – often described as a personal relationship – was worth far more than any such head knowledge. It was far more likely that the simple person in the pew knew God much better than those who liked to think. I liked to think, and I had trouble experiencing things. I did not feel warm and fuzzy about Christ, though God knows I tried, very hard. But with conditions that would later be recognized as depression and OCD, this was hard.
When one tries and fails too many times, one of course comes to a crossroads – either I had failed entirely and there was no hope because I could not experience the way others did, or there was a problem with my experiential standard of evaluation. I went with the latter option – had I gone with the former I would no longer be a Christian – and discovered worldview Christianity. I felt that this was great, because it made things not a matter of experiential feeling, but of how you think. Regardless of experience, you can train yourself to have a Christian worldview. Whatever its problems, I do credit this kind of faith with getting me through when experience failed.
But there is a significant problem with worldview Christianity too, and this became clear when I encountered mental illness in ways I had not before. You will see the problem if you think about what it might be like to minister as a Christian to people in a psychiatric ward. Worldview Christianity with all its sophisticated talk about training the mind comes up fairly short when it comes to those who sometimes have cognitive difficulty performing basic things. I know what it is to be such a person, and also what it is to stand beside such people. Christ, rather than a Christian worldview, is what we need.
But then what can it mean to have Christ in these situations, if they are not necessarily gauged by experience and intellect? In trying to figure this out, I turned to the church, to community, to liturgy. Because in such community, ideally understood, we can believe on behalf of another, and carry the one who does not have the capacity to do so him/her self. Just as a parent can believe on behalf of the baptized child till he or she comes of age, even so, on the days when my very biology is set against hope, when my neurotransmitters find themselves being anxious contra Christ’s liberating command, I know there is Christ’s church, to hold me confused and lost in her heart, in her liturgy, and to hope and believe on my behalf till I am repaired.
This is the point I came to – and then I encountered schism and frustration. In the Diocese of New Westminster, I encountered Anglican schism of a vicious sort, with the conservatives sacrificing love, pastoral care, and fidelity to Christ for a lawsuit, and the liberals basically giving up on any kind of solid faith. I was more or less exiled from a campus ministry group because I raised questions when student input was quietly silenced and the group became a one-man show. And in our Bible study – that most intimate of places where church thrived – community stuck, but we lost one of our members, one of my closest friends, in a car accident. Community shatters, if not by division, then by death. And I found myself in the dark wrestling with God. He was all that was left, the good and terrible Thing my life depended on. There were no more ideas, plans, optimisms. It was me beating my fists against the solidity of the One who holds my identity – not always able to explain why I clung, but intuiting reasons tougher than granite. I came to believe in the dark, like a desert plant lying dormant until there may be rain. And this is largely where I am now.
But it raises a problem, because once one has developed such a tough, guerrilla-like faith that can survive anywhere, how does one evaluate where one ought to be? People warn me that if I become Catholic, it will not be a bed of roses, but a bed of roses is not in fact what I am looking for. I expect it not to be, and indeed the thing I have become best at doing is believing where things are not a bed of roses. My faith has been fitted for darkness and pain, for clinging in blindness. And when it comes to thinking about what role experience should play in my decisions about Catholicism, my proclivity is to answer: none. The problem though is I don’t feel such an answer is really Christian. Because ours is a faith where we taste and touch the body of Christ. But I feel I have fasted from experience so long – have been in the dry wilds so long – I don’t even know how to properly evaluate things. Friends worry that, in thinking about Catholicism, I am opting for an easy-out I have idealized beyond what I can expect. But this is not the case. Wherever I go, I expect nothing but pain and crucifixion, yet I am advised in the creed to look for the resurrection of the dead. And I don’t know how to look for this, evaluate this. And so I appeal to you, the church, to help me figure this out. At the very least, please pray for me.