Subjective personal experiences as opposed to objective spiritual reality.

Discussion Question:

If we truly believe the Bible is the Supreme, final, and adequate authority in faith and life, what role, if any do subjective experiences and revelations have for Christians?

Within this well posted discussion question is perhaps some additional rationales for the many Christians who started within the Christian church only to leave the church due to its inability to answer the many difficult questions that they faced within ever-changing culture.

Let me first state that only the souls that were spiritually regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God could firmly believe that the Bible is Supreme, final and adequate authority in faith and life. This very statement for a believer is what may be considered a Spiritual objective truth that is affirmed by experienced within the believer’s intuition. As noted by the Merrian-Webster dictionary [http://www.merrian-webster.com/dictionary], the term objective is defined as: b: of relating to; or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers: having reality independent of the mind [as in Faith, a by-product of the Holy Spirit]. Emphasis mine. Or, 3 a): Expressing or dealing with facts [as in absolute truth that are found only in the Holy Spirit] emphasis mine, or conditions as perceived without distortions by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.

Pastor Ken Hornok’s article entitled, Does God Give subjective revelation today? The place of Mysticism in Christian Decision Making did an exceptional job discussing the dangers of subjectivism within the Body of Christ and for the millions who are endangered within many non-Christian beliefs. One portion of his article that I wish to highlight for this discussion is how Hornok chronicled God’s objective revelations of Himself to humankind. It was noted in the article that God’s [written scriptures, through epiphanies- dreams, visions, Christophanies, angles, the use of prophets and apostles]. The greatest revelation from God to humankind is Jesus as Immanuel [God with us] and as The Messiah for all nations of peoples worldwide. Amen! As Hornok stated, “revelation did not result from self-stimulated existential or emotional experiences. In every case where God gave information to mankind, He communicated to his mind, not through his emotions (1 Cor. 2: 10,13). What has happened within all of Christendom that now humans must rely upon human sense in a means to navigate through an insane, godless culture? Author James D. Hunter writes an impressive article that attempts to answer this question.

Hunter’s assertion is that there are two major forces that are driving modern-day subjectivism. Note: the following is a very brief summation of my analysis:

  1. The process of deinstitutionalization
  2. Evangelical accommodation to the subjectivism that is dominant in the larger culture. [Subjectivization and the New Evangelical Theodicy; Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; Mar82, Vol. 21 Issue 1, p39, 9 p.]

Defining deinstitutionalization

The German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen (1957,1980) and other social scientists have argued that one of the distinguishing features of modern society is the process of deinstitutionalization. [Hunter, 39]. A consequence of the intense convergence of the processes of functional rationalization, cultural pluralism, social and geographic mobility and institutional differentiation, [deinstitutionalization is the process whereby stable and well defined patterns of individual conduct, social relationship, and thought loss their-taken for-granted plausibility]. Institutions [the church included], those structures that act as a background to human experience, giving it a sense of intelligibility and continuity, are under these conditions Receding.

The key observation by Hunter in respect to the process of deinstitutionalization is that “in modern America, it is not the public sphere of massive bureaucracies but rather the Private Spheres of Family and primary social relations which evidence more deinstitutionalization. Courtship and marriage, child rearing, sexuality, religious belief and practice, consuming patters, leisure, vocation, and identity in general have all been profoundly challenged. [40]

Subjectivization is an orientation distinguished by the abiding absorption with the “complexities” of individuality, good or bad, as it may be perceived. Thus, the structural process directing one into the self leads to the preoccupation with the self. All of this, as stated by Hunter has a particular bearing on RELIGION and ONE’S RELIGIOUS worldview [40]. Religion in modern society is under pressure to remain sequestered in the private sphere, institutionally and symbolically. While this is so, the complexities of experience in the private sphere have, at the same time, grown. Religion is confronted with more difficulties to reconcile its votaries [followers or devotees]. THIS IS WHERE THE BALL IS DROPPED.

The New Evangelical Theodicy [Theodicy-the defense of God’s goodness/omnipotence in view of the existence of evil]

The problem currently is that of subjectivism. A religious theodicy in modern situation is presented with the task of accounting for and addressing the new and uncharted complexities of the self and all other problems contained under the rubric; The New Mental health. Hunter points that modern day Evangelism has accommodated to the cultural pull of subjectivity so much that the church’s worldview has largely come ensnared in the labyrinth of intra-subjectivity. He supports his assertion by reviewing the educational literature that emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s. His brief findings includes:

  1. 32.5% of Evangelical publications attempt to address “psychological balance and emotional maturity for believers. There was noted a large doses of synthesis of biblical theology, Humanistic or Freudian psychology within the literature.
  2. 27.4% of Evangelical publications attempt to address understanding of emotional and psychological problems that appears to either be undermined or overly spiritualized by believers.
  3. The final dimension of accommodation to subjectivity is an orientation toward a form of narcissism and a from of hedonism. Hedonism is an extension of the narcissistic orientation. The attitude of enamourment with the self is extended to the attitude that the world exists for the purpose of comforting the self with pleasure and joy. This is reflected in the Americanization of the Gospel message with is essentially driven by the culture as opposed to the Holy Spirit. [45]

Closing comments:

The oblivious dangers that was revealed in this research, points to an increase of souls drifting from Christianity or practices such as mysticism in an attempt to make sense of the world and their lives. Doctrine, theology nor religions will ever address the paradoxes of this life. Only by the regeneration of the soul: rebirth by the power of the Holy Spirit and the illumination of the Holy Scriptures will be the answer.

In Hunter’s article, it is easy to detect that subjectivism has largely displaced the traditional ascetism as the dominant attitude within theologically conservative Protestant culture.

And lastly, even though contemporary American Evangelicalism maintains at the doctrinal level of immutability in the face of modernity, the data presented by Hunter indicates at least partial adjustment at the cultural level.

Charis-Shalom

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Comment by Christopher R. Dockrey on March 1, 2010 at 1:39pm
Brother Alonzoe', you are really sharing some valuable information here. You might consider re-posting some of that data in the form of another blog article to give the information proper treatment.

In reading after saints in generations gone by, it is apparent to me that the level of commitment to the spiritual disciplines far surpasses what is common in today's American church - and this is true of practically any other generation. This is not necessarily true abroad, but it is true in the U.S. for the most part. And the tragedy of it is that if you are in a church where there is no challenge to make a lifestyle of your faith, you are going to be very lonely if you endeavor to do so. I'm sure many believers have become less spiritual out of a need for social interaction within the Church. And perhaps others have unwittingly become bitter and pharasaical.

And yes, I agree that some people come into the church because of an experience and are never really discipled. And I would also question whether some of these people were ever born again. I think in our attempt to make people understand the simplicity of the Gospel we have emphasized making a confession of faith in Christ without actually preaching the Gospel first; it is no wonder, then, why actual faith isn't present. If people haven't heard the message, the Holy Spirit has no basis on which to prick their hearts. If we just say, "Hey, you can be saved if you repeat after me" without preaching Jesus' life, death, burial, and resurrection, many people will mouth the words with no prior knowledge of what we will say and no real conviction as to whether those things are true. I've seen this a lot. They may have come to the church in the midst of a personal tragedy, and they may have an emotional experience where they cry out to God, but that alone doesn't equal salvation.

I could make a hundred more comments here, but I will save them for now. Keep these articles coming, brother!
Comment by Alonzo E Thornton, D.Min. on March 1, 2010 at 12:49pm
Brother Christopher,
Thanks for your feedback, your honesty as well as your willingness to share personally as God is shaping and making you a man of faith who is seeking spiritual maturity as well as balance.
Many of my initial statements, views and research was motivated by the millions of souls who started out in the church, only to leave the church due to the lack of biblical literacy, poor discipleship methodology and many not truely regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Many of these individuals were deceived by subjective experiences that they believed was biblical faith. In this regard, they were not able to develop the required Biblical worldview that a disciple must have in order to navigate through this world. In times past, a disciple of Christ was required to spend their life-time learning the Way of the Master with a balance of Spirit and Truth. This was essentially an ascetic lifestyle leading toward holiness and spiritual maturity. My friend, recent researcher are revealing that this type of seeking is lost in the past, never to become a in fashionable quest by those who are "Christian". I've included some supportive data to note the very sad condition our spirituality is at present in America.

Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-in-Review Perspective
Based on his company’s interviews with thousands of people during the year, researcher George Barna synthesized the findings across numerous studies and summarized four themes that emerged from his research regarding religion in 2009.

Theme 1: Increasingly, Americans are more interested in faith and spirituality than in Christianity.

“Faith remains a hot topic in America these days,” George Barna commented, expanding on the theme. “Politicians, athletes, cultural philosophers, teachers, entertainers, musicians – nearly everyone has something to say about faith, religion, spirituality, morality, and belief these days. But as the fundamental values and assumptions of our nation continue to shift, so do our ideas about faith and spirituality. Many of our basic assumptions are no longer firm or predictable.

“One of those assumptions relates to how we develop our faith. These days,” he continued, “the faith arena is a marketplace from which we get ideas, beliefs, relationships, habits, rituals and traditions that make immediate sense to us, and with which we are comfortable. The notion of associating with a particular faith – whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other strain – still has appeal because that connection provides a discernible identity and facilitates the possibility of belonging to something meaningful. But the actual components of what we choose to belong to are driven by our momentary needs and perceptions.

“Our studies consistently demonstrate – as explained in unChristian, the book by my colleague, David Kinnaman – that being a Christian or associating with the Christian faith is not as attractive to Americans as it used to be. That is largely due to two realities. First, the mass media have unfavorably caricatured the Christian faith, devout Christians and Christian churches. Second, it is relatively rare to find someone who is an exemplar of the Christian faith,” the researcher explained. “Consequently, millions of Americans have less trouble embracing Christ than they have embracing Christianity, but many people assume it is a package deal: that is, you cannot be a Christian without adopting the institutional framework and limitations of the Christian world. Young adults, in particular, find that unappealing.

“Ultimately, in a culture where people are busy, distracted, confused and trying to keep it all together, there is less loyalty to a faith brand than to self. The purpose of faith, for most Americans, is not so much to discover truth or to relate to a loving, praiseworthy deity as it is to become happy, successful, comfortable and secure. For a growing percentage of citizens, their sense of spirituality, more than Christianity, facilitates those outcomes.”

Some of the related survey results Barna cited from this year’s studies included:

o Just 50% of adults contend that Christianity is still the automatic faith of choice in the US

o Nearly nine out of every ten adults (88%) agreed either strongly or somewhat that their religious faith is very important in their life

o 74% said their faith is becoming more important in their life

o Substantive awareness of other faith groups is minimal; even simple name awareness of some groups, such as Wicca, is tiny (only 45% have heard of Wicca)

o Most self-identified Christians are comfortable with the idea that the Bible and the sacred books from non-Christian religions all teach the same truths and principles

o Half of all adults (50%) argue that a growing number of people they know are tired of having the same church experience


Theme 2: Faith in the American context is now individual and customized. Americans are comfortable with an altered spiritual experience as long as they can participate in the shaping of that faith experience.

“Now that we are comfortable with the idea of being spiritual as opposed to devoutly Christian,” Barna pointed out, “Americans typically draw from a broad treasury of moral, spiritual and ethical sources of thought to concoct a uniquely personal brand of faith. Feeling freed from the boundaries established by the Christian faith, and immersed in a postmodern society which revels in participation, personal expression, satisfying relationships, and authentic experiences, we become our own unchallenged spiritual authorities, defining truth and reality as we see fit.

“Consequently, more and more people are engaged in hybrid faiths, mixing elements from different historical eras and divergent theological perspectives,” Barna stated. “In some ways, we are creating the ultimate ecumenical movement, where nothing is deemed right or wrong, and all ideas, beliefs and practices are assigned equal validity. Everyone is invited to join the dialogue, enjoy the ride, and feel connected to a far-reaching community of believers. Screening or critiquing what that community believes is deemed rude and inappropriate. Pragmatism and relativism, rather than any sort of absolutism, has gained momentum.”

Some of the survey findings that related to this theme included:

o About half of all adults (45%) say they are willing to try a new church or even a new form of church

o 71% say they will develop their own slate of religious beliefs rather than accept a package of beliefs promoted by a church or denomination

o Three-quarters of adults (75%) believe that God is motivating them and others to connect with Him through different means and experiences than were common in the past

o Barely one-third of self-identified Christians (36%) strongly agree that it is important for followers of Christ to maintain positive relationships with people who are not Christians

o Two-thirds of adults (64%) are willing to experience and express their faith in new or different environments or structures than they have in the past

o Only one-third (34%) believe in absolute moral truth


Theme 3: Biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal in the U.S.

Barna’s findings related to Bible knowledge and application indicate that little progress, if any, is being made toward assisting people to become more biblically literate.

“Bible reading has become the religious equivalent of sound-bite journalism. When people read from the Bible they typically open it, read a brief passage without much regard for the context, and consider the primary thought or feeling that the passage provided. If they are comfortable with it, they accept it; otherwise, they deem it interesting but irrelevant to their life, and move on. There is shockingly little growth evident in people’s understanding of the fundamental themes of the scriptures and amazingly little interest in deepening their knowledge and application of biblical principles.

Barna noted that some of the critical assumptions of many preachers and Bible teachers is inaccurate. “The problem facing the Christian Church is not that people lack a complete set of beliefs; the problem is that they have a full slate of beliefs in mind, which they think are consistent with biblical teachings, and they are neither open to being proven wrong nor to learning new insights. Our research suggests that this challenge initially emerges in the late adolescent or early teenage years. By the time most Americans reach the age of 13 or 14, they think they pretty much know everything of value the Bible has to teach and they are no longer interested in learning more scriptural content. It requires increasingly concise, creative, reinforced, and personally relevant efforts to penetrate people’s minds with new or more accurate insights into genuinely biblical principles. In a culture driven by the desire to receive value, more Bible teaching is generally not viewed as an exercise in providing such value.”

Some of the survey-based results that led Barna to his conclusions included the following:

o 68% of self-identified Christians have heard of spiritual gifts, a decline in the past decade; a minority (roughly one-third) can actually identify a biblical spiritual gift they claim to possess

o Less than one out of every five born again adults (19%) has a biblical worldview, which is unchanged in the past 15 years

o Just half of all self-identified Christians firmly believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles (not the facts, just the principles) that it teaches

o Barely one-quarter of adults (27%) are confident that Satan exists

o Less than four out of every ten self-identified Christians firmly accept the teaching that a person can be influenced by spiritual forces, such as angels or demons

o An overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians (81%) contend that spiritual maturity is achieved by following the rules in the Bible

o Only 4% believe that poverty is an issue that is primarily the responsibility of the Church



Theme 4: Effective and periodic measurement of spirituality – conducted personally or through a church – is not common at this time and it is not likely to become common in the near future.

“There are two levels on which evaluation of where we stand spiritually can take place,” noted the California-based author. “There can be external measurement, such as that conducted by pastors, teachers, coaches or peers, and there can be self-evaluation. At the moment, we’re seeing very little of either form of review related to a person’s spiritual condition.

“Our studies this year among pastors showed that almost nine out of ten senior pastors of Protestant churches asserted that spiritual immaturity is one of the most serious problems facing the Church. Yet relatively few of those pastors believe that such immaturity is reflected in their church. Few pastors have gone so far as to give their congregants a specific, written statement of how they define spiritual maturity, how it might be measured, the strategy for facilitating such maturity, or what scriptural passages are most helpful in describing and fostering maturity. Those pastors who made any attempt to measure maturity were more likely to gauge depth on the basis of participation in programs than to evaluate people’s spiritual understanding or any type of transformational fruit in their lives. Overall, less than one out of every ten pastors said they were completely satisfied with how they assess the spiritual condition of their congregation.

“The situation is similar among Christian individuals. Americans have an almost insatiable curiosity about themselves and how they stack up against others. Yet, in the spiritual realm, that same level of curiosity is much less apparent. Perhaps it is because of the lack of tools for such measurement or even the absence of motivation to grow or to deepen their relationship with God.

“Not surprisingly,” he continued, “our research found that a majority of churchgoing adults are uncertain as to what their church would define as a ‘healthy, spiritually mature follower of Christ’ and they were no more likely to have personally developed a clear notion of such a life.

“It may well be that spiritual evaluation is so uncommon because people fear that the results might suggest the need for different growth strategies or for more aggressive engagement in the growth process. No matter what the underlying reason is, the bottom line among both the clergy and laity was indifference toward their acknowledged lack of evaluation. That suggests there is not likely to be much change in this dimension in the immediate future. In other words, as we examine the discipleship landscape, what we see is what we get – and what we will keep getting for some time.”
Comment by Christopher R. Dockrey on March 1, 2010 at 8:30am
Alright I have a little more time to comment on this now. Let me first say that the analysis here is very good. The reality of deinstitutionalization cannot be denied, nor can the cultural emphasis on personal religious experience lending itself to mysticism as opposed to what is termed here, "spiritual objective truth". I've seen this first hand and it is quite troubling to me. The Americanization of the Gospel, the invasion of church culture by the broader culture, etc. is all true. These things are undeniable.

I can certainly agree that Jesus is the greatest revelation of God to man, but I don't believe that his coming nullifies the various ways God has communicated to mankind throughout the ages. I believe church history attests to that fact. Certainly none of these subjective experiences - dreams, visions, etc. - are to be exalted above the Word of Truth, and any such legitimate experiences should never contradict what is revealed in the Scriptures. I don't really think it is fair to make this an either/or scenario, as in one form of revelation versus another. The Scriptures are obviously the "more sure word of prophecy". I believe the Scriptures should be given preeminence, and that there should be a structure of accountability in place wherein these experiences might be put in proper perspective and judged when necessary. When we look at the Bible, we see that it is full of subjective experiences throughout. In order for us to determine that God does not still reveal himself in the ways he has in past times, I think we would need a very convincing argument from the Scriptures to that effect - and I have never heard one.

Moreover, if I may reveal my own bias, I have had many such experiences. In addition to providing illumination on the Holy Scriptures, I believe the Spirit of God has given me specific information that has kept me from getting in traffic accidents more than a few times. He has revealed certain facts to me about people that enabled me to help them spiritually, and He has given me warnings about dangerous situations and divisive people. All of these experiences are wholly subjective because they are from my perspective only, but I think each of them is consistent with the Scriptures. But if I were to exalt them above biblical revelation and make them the primary means of God communicating to me, then I'd have a serious problem and I would open myself up to deception.
Comment by Alonzo E Thornton, D.Min. on February 28, 2010 at 8:15am
Brother Dockrey,
It is always a blessing to hear from you. Likewise your input and noble feedback is very needed and required for those of us who are called by God to pose questions to issues, concerns and problems that are related to the Body of Christ. We are called to sharpen each other in our giftedness in the hope that the Body of Christ can become mature in all that the Father purpose for her in this age.
Much Grace and Peace to you and your household.
Brother Alonzoe'
Comment by Christopher R. Dockrey on February 28, 2010 at 12:14am
Brother Alonzoe, thanks again for another thought-provoking article. I have several thoughts that I could to share about this - not all of them completely agreeable, though some are - but I don't have the time or the intellectual energy right now to articulate any of them completely. Keep these articles coming. Whether we realize it or not, we all need to consider these ideas and be challenged by them - at least so we know where we stand and so we are not being led into any ditches. Thanks again, brother!

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