Whatever’s the opposite of writers’ block I’m suffering from it. I just seem to keep on writing and writing without much editing capacity and the results are not so good.
One of the perennial challenges of discussing spirituality with other people is when you encounter the person who expects you to treat their experience of the spiritual as evidence – the testimony as proof.
|Just the fact's, Mam.|
Here is a terrible example of a testimony;
“I have experienced Gods touch, his love and his mercy over and over again. Recieving his Holy Ghost, and being renewed are times I will never forget. Being able to be in his prescence should never be taken for granted. God has blessed me tremendously as a young person...” from http://www.wordsoftestimony.com/
This person has just strung together a series of conclusions with none of the “stuff” that led into them. “I have experienced God’s touch” and “God has blessed me” are interpretations of facts. Those facts may have been the sensation of a touch or a lift in mood or a run of good luck but the attribution of them to God is the conclusion. Jumping to conclusions adamantly and repeatedly is not good testimony.
I’ve included a decent testimony about a psychic phenomenon and a poor testimony about Christianity deliberately (and without difficulty). This is because a particular type of Christianity is the religion par excellence for both privileging the testimony as proof and doing it badly. This particular type of Christianity is labelled Evangelical; those churches of the Wesleyan legacy and the American revivalist traditions and their numerous offshoots. Due to their prominence in America these groups have had profound influence across the western world so much so that many denominations outside of a strict category of Evangelist contain members with a similar flavour.
The evangelical tradition is the inspiration for many amazing elements of modern Christianity. Although other Christians also opposed European slavery it was evangelicals who turned the tide. Many of the suffragettes were evangelicals. The Salvation Army is also born of the evangelical movement as was Alcoholics Anonymous, the YMCA, the social work profession, many Christian peace movements and so on. Evangelicals have challenged other Christians to roll up their sleeves and involve themselves in the need around them. Evangelical churches reversed a nineteenth century European trend that church was for the wealthy by growing new churches among the poor. In the case of African Americans and Hispanics, along with the missionary movement in Asia and Africa (a mostly evangelical enterprise) this has challenged the ethnic and geographical centre of Christianity as European.
The evangelicals also expanded Christian liturgy. Most Protestant Hymns were just reworked psalms prior to Evangelicals. Pop music and church music were very separate. An evangelical liberality in worship styles brought forth both Amazing Grace, and O When the Saints Go Marching In. Today Christian Heavy Metal, Rock, Folk and R&B music all owe their acceptance to evangelicals. On the one hand Evangelicals gave us the alter call, estatic worship and mega-churches. On the other the small home church and the pub church go back to them too.
Lastly personal testimony as evidence is also a legacy of this movement. Due to its evangelical nature (which means to spread the gospel) non-christians encounter personal testimony more so than quieter expressions of Christianity. Some people first encounter it on t.v. on many Christian panel shows or when approached by a street preacher or at a drop-in youth group. In such cases there may be no other knowledge of Christianity to compare it to even when the viewer converts. Subsequently modern generations of Christians see personal testimony as a core element of Christianity even though it plays little part in Orthodox, Catholic, High Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions historically.
Personal testimony is so central in evangelical Christianity it can rival and exceed the importance of scripture. From About.com:Christianity;
“Skeptics may debate the validity of Scripture or argue the existence of God, but no one can deny your personal experiences with him. When you tell your story of how God has worked a miracle in your life, or how he has blessed you, transformed you, lifted and encouraged you, perhaps even broken and healed you, no one can argue or debate it. You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God.” (Their emphasis)
That’s an insanely privileged place for personal testimony to hold. I’m not even sure what the last sentence means exactly but you know it’s good. I can’t think of any other faith outlook that puts personal testimony on such a high pedestal except the equally conversion orientated Seventh Day Adventists or interestingly aggressive atheism.
As for doing it badly Christians who testify seem to suffer under an obligation to say that there is nothing metaphorical at all about their meeting Jesus. Some will tell you it was a real meeting of a real person, as real as they are meeting you. Those people will then say that Jesus entered their heart. Now either one of those statements is false or there would have been a god-awful mess. This obligation to effectively lie is the consequence of first of all the privileging of personal testimony amongst evangelical Christians. A personal meeting with God can in some churches be the difference between a real Christian and a pending one. This can even be referred to as a second baptism (baptism being a Christians ritual introduction to membership) so that without such a meeting you are only a nominal member. This pressures an evangelical Christian to amplify the personal basis of their faith.
I also think there is a wider cultural bias about the right basis for belief that Christians must contend with and that newer denominations are themselves riddled with. Perhaps it’s a by-product of the cultural reach of American individualism or maybe it’s a consequence of empiricism as the default way of knowing; maybe it’s the inevitable effect of Protestantism feeding back into itself; maybe it’s just diversity in the spiritual marketplace and our consumer role in it. Whatever the cause, we seem to expect people to believe in God for unique individual reasons in a way that was less common for people only a few generations ago. In addition this experience must be absolutely non-metaphorical. It must conform to direct sensory perception. This certainly afflicts the newest faith on the block, popular atheism, which equally treats a personal and empirical experience of God as the sole legitimate basis for belief. Christians who rise to this criticism of their faith are obliged to produce such an experience of God.
Personal testimony is also a key element of the other new faith which competes in the western world with Christianity –New Age beliefs. The problem for Christianity (as I see it) is those phenomenons included as New Age are just so much more amenable to this kind of evidential testimonial treatment. Whether it’s a premonition as testified to above, or psychic pets or the recollection of past lives these are phenomenons which are happily reducible to facts. They are discrete chains of cause and effect distinct from every day life with each link able to be described independently of the observer.
In fact New Age beliefs seem to me to be exactly those aspects selected from a range of broader traditions which are amenable to evidential testimony. Crystal healing are removed from any broader understanding of how spiritual and physical overlap. The I Ching is used to divine without a broader appreciation of Chinese thought. The New Age movement takes the rituals of Paganism or Wicca and throws them into a toolkit of “useful” things from completely different worlds such as an Egyptian motif tarot deck. Each selection though is pseudo-scientific enough to provide the basis for evidentiary testimony.
The experience of sinfulness and salvation, of changes in what seems important and insight into one’s own behaviour are never going to fit neatly into the sort of testimony that constitutes evidence because these are not independent facts occurring at discrete moments in time in chains of cause and effect. This may be why such elements of faith outlooks like Wicca are left out of New Age toolkits. Perhaps this is also why when such Christian experiences are competing with new age stories then the metaphorical language which sums up the whole experience has to be turned into a series of mundane facts, e.g. I met Jesus. He spoke to me. This would explain why such testimonies are so hollow of detail such as the sound of Gods voice or where they touched you; because these mundane facts are really metaphors.
Ultimately if Christianity remains committed to evidentiary testimony it will evolve Christianity into the type of faith that evidentiary testimony can express. Healings, prophetic messages (inspired premonitions) and full sensory experiences of a walking, talking Jesus will be more central to the faith because that is what can be talked about in a testimonial format. In those churches which most think of testimony as evidence we can already see this trend. It’s a sort of New Ageing of Christianity just as other faith outlooks have suffered.
On my very first post on this blog I expressed an interest in hearing about people’s experience of God. That interest remains and I’ve certainly heard a few experiences since then. I’ve written this post partly because I’m getting tired of slippery language that insists on being taking seriously without a standard for what evidential testimony is. But more so because I don’t like what the trend towards that language is doing to Christianity, a faith tradition I admire.
There are amazing stories to be shared by Christians. There are lives lived differently in response to a big idea like love one another and a reliance on faith to maintain that commitment. There is the feeling of coming home to the faith, of being disconnected without it and of understanding oneself best in the language of Christianity. I am more interested in these stories than those miraculous evidentiary moments that some seem to think an atheist needs to hear. But if you do insist on telling me that a corporeal Jesus held your hand then I will expect you to remember left or right.
An aside...(probably the best bit)
The Gospels contain a fascinating story about an apostle who needed personal physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas is called the doubting apostle but it would be fairer to say that he is disbelieving. Without any doubt at all Thomas thinks that the other apostles are talking rubbish when they say that Jesus is alive. And Thomas has a pretty high standard of proof before he’ll change his mind.
Jesus then appears to the apostles, in a locked room none the less, and in accord with Thomas’ demand for proof places Thomas hand in the wound in his side.
Here’s the thing; I identify with Thomas. I like a guy who needs to experience something for himself all bloody and mucky too. In fact the comments about atheists and their privileging of personal experience in this piece are about myself. However I also think that this need is warping Christianity by producing false testimonies of Thomas like experiences. On the one hand I won’t believe until my hand in is in his side. On the other I don’t think Christians should make that the focus of their faith. Am I having my cake and eating it too here? What do I really want Christians to do? Whatever it is I hope they don’t care enough to jump to it.