No Experience Is Better Than False Experience (Guest Post)

Following is a guest post from my Kiwi friend, Jonathan Elliot, who writes about faith and being a friendly agnostic at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

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I’d like to tell my story of not being slain in the spirit.

I spent a fair bit of time in spirit-filled practice when I was a student, attended a charismatic church and worked closely with Pentecostals in our campus christian group.  I can still speak in tongues on demand, if you want me to. At the time, a pentecostal ministry ran a revival week in a huge tent out in the countryside. I’ll let the cynical among us note the appropriateness of using a circus tent for such events.  They brought a number of apparently-big-name preachers in from overseas and one of them was a clean-cut young man who was surely not even thirty years old. I’ll call him Redfords LaGrange. God had allegedly been talking to him since he was seven years old, and he’d made a study of “God’s Generals,” famous spirit-fooled preachers.

Standing at the rear of some 1500 people, I listened to him. On another night I’d heard Redfords exhort the whole crowd to voluntarily speak in tongues at the top of their lungs.  I felt uncomfortable with this, mainly for what I felt were Scriptural reasons. It also seemed kinda stupid and I quietly left to stand in the dark field and pray. As the roar of the crowd behind me surged, I could hear the cry from the poor folk trying to sleep in a distant farmhouse: “SHUuuuuuuuuT UuuuP!” This rather amused me, especially since they actually used more colorful language.

Anyway, on the night in question Redfords LaGrange called for those engaged in youth ministry up the front; he was going to pray for them. I walked up the long aisle into the spotlights along with about 50 others and we stood in a line along the front.  Now, when you’ve got 50 people to pray for individually and you’re a preacher with no time to spare, you have to kind of rush along the line and spend about 15 seconds with each person.  You don’t have time to even ask the person’s name. As Redfords was coming, I prayed “God, I’m open to anything you want to do. Do anything you want to me. Make me fall over if you want, only please let it be you and not psychology.”  I’d been praying that all the way down the aisle too. Let me say, I was very sincere about both things.  I wanted a touch, but only if it was real.

I knew falling over was likely, as that tended to happen in these kind of meetings. I always preferred to call it “falling over”, as the term “slain in the spirit” is not one found in scripture. The cynical can point to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were slain BY the Spirit.  I doubt anyone wants to recreate that experience.

Indeed, as Redfords came down the line, I saw people falling over out of the corner of my eye. “Catchers” ran forward to make sure they didn’t hit the ground too hard. Many of us already had catchers standing behind us in advance. If it’s an experience from God, I always wondered why he would allow you to be hurt?

Redfords LaGrange reached me and prayed, his hand gently on my head. I didn’t sense any physical pressure from him, I was alert to being pushed.  He prayed kindly and briefly, and moved on.  Did I sense him hesitate when I didn’t collapse? I stayed there praying, slowly realising that out of the whole line, I was the only one who hadn’t fallen over.  Maybe I was resisting the spirit, maybe my intellect had made me hard-hearted. But I know I was sincere. I just didn’t want it to be weak buckling at the knees under the influence of emotion, tiredness or peer pressure.

Mark Vernon migrated from christian clergy to atheist, and now calls himself an “agnostic christian”. He’s an advocate of silence and
not-knowing. Vernon says it’s important to draw a clear line between silence and an experience of ecstasy.

There is an emphasis on experiencing ecstasy in much contemporary churchgoing. This is Christianity that is authenticated by some kind of peak experience, from speaking in tongues, to being healed, to seeing a statue move.  Typically, the experience is noisy, demonstrative and, qua the experience, often barely distinguishable from a bungee jump or druggy high.  But this is Christianity as psychological buzz; its passion is no more than emotion.  It’s aims may be valid – happiness, satisfaction, belonging – but they eclipse the goal of spirituality, at least according to [Meister] Eckhart, which is that of sacred ignorance. For the pursuers of pure experience, the unknown is regarded suspiciously.  They substitute the language of personal fulfillment for the language of … doubt.” –After Atheism, p 120.

So what do I make of this? As it happens, in the course of many other meetings I’ve never fallen over. I’m not a hater; I believe that if God was there, then my prayer was honored. I also have a funny feeling that at least some of those people fell over because they felt they had to, or look unspiritual in front of the audience. Have you ever felt left out when others all seemed to be getting blessed? What did you make of it?

Again, check out Jonathan’s blog at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

7 Responses

  1. […] story from me. This was originally published as a guest post at my Texas friend Dave’s Agnostic Pentecostal. I use a bit of Christian jargon, hope it makes […]

  2. ‘Lord,’ can you tell a story. Congrats! Next time you have a drink, Jon, I’m cheering you.

  3. As always, Jonathan writes another interesting and wise post.

    I think I resonate with Cindy’s comment that she is a “happy agnostic” now. I have also had quite a few experiences just as Jonathan describes.

    I grew up within a pro-christian family (all christian, save my agnostic mother), and spent time being a somewhat passionate and theologically minded Christian for years, mostly within moderate baptist churches, tryed out a Pentecostal church for a couple of years, and described myself as “progressive evangelical” (meaning liberal while being able to use that label around those who consider liberal to be perjorative).

    After seeking God zealousy, studying at a seminary, and doing the best I could to grapple with Christianity with all of my MIND as well as my heart, I guess I would consider myself a “strong” agnostic. I don’t know what to do about metaphysical claims and – after much philosophical consideration – pretty much find the Transcendent to be ‘factually insignificant’ (a la A.J Ayer’s verificationism).

    I tried being an angry atheist for a bit. Angry because I felt betrayed by my church community and tradition, and at what I considered to be a blinkered education and revisionistic tutelage in history and social issues.

    However I was reflecting just this morning at how peaceful my current state of agnosticism is. It isn’t the agnosticism of temporary confusion, but a more settled and contented brand. I’m fairly rationalistic, and I’m happy to sit with unknowns and mysteries of our bounded knowledge in the scientific sphere… and I think the inherent ineffability of religious claims are no more disturbing anymore.

    I even went along to (a baptist) church this morning, due to special invitation, and found that I could enjoy it for what it was. I sat in the moment, thought about things, enjoyed the rush of singing in concert with the congregation, appreciated the sermon greatly, and left again as a very happy agnostic.

    • Brilliant way to explain it, Iain: “It isn’t the agnosticism of temporary confusion, but a more settled and contented brand…I’m happy to sit with unknowns and mysteries…”

      And I especially liked your last sentence. That’s an exercise many of us could benefit from. Thanks!

  4. […] Check out a guest post I just did for Agnostic […]

  5. As a member of Vineyard churches from the late 80’s thru the 90’s…..I saw all manner of weirdness during services. Really freaky stuff that blew my mind. None of it ever happened to me. I felt a bit left out, yeah, and for awhile figured I must have some ‘rebellion’ or ‘control’ issues. I remember going to a women’s prayer weekend in Kansas City and hearing 2000 women ‘giving birth in the spirit’. No, not a pretty picture. Later I was ‘prayed on’ in my hotel room by a bunch of well-meaning but totally kooky ‘intercessory prayer warriors’. Um, that wasn’t fun. I finally had to ‘pretend’ something was happening so they’d get off me. Reminds me of being 16 on a youth retreat with the Assemblies…having my peers scream “Just speak it out! Just speak it out! Let go of the fear!” The other few people had received their ‘gift’, and now the entire room encircled me. That time I finally babbled something incoherent and went to hide in a closet and cried alone for a couple hours. The humiliation was unfathomable. Then I just got angry. And stayed angry for years and years.

    I’m a happy agnostic now. I feel closest to God when I can’t figure stuff out in the world, including the lunacy that often happens in the name of god. FWIW, I could never be put into a ‘trance’ at childhood slumber parties either. *shrugging shoulders.*

    Great post. Sorry for the length of my reply…..

    • Cindy, I love this: “I feel closest to God when I can’t figure stuff out…”

      Oddly enough, those who “prayed” on you and caused you so much hurt/confusion might say the exact same thing, like “Don’t try to figure it out…just speak it out” …of course with the best intentions. All of this is so weird and full of irony. And I’m feelin’ ya…So sorry for what you went through…you’re unfortunately not alone in that (as Jonathan’s post attests, as do the accounts of many others). Thanks so much for sharing. Glad you’ve found a place of contentment.

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