Saturday, 26 March 2016

Do personality profiles explain who God gives religious experiences to?

Some Christians seem to experience God nearly every week. Each Sunday’s worship provides a new encounter with the Holy Spirit: an extra layer of emotional healing or a word of knowledge for a friend. Other Christians can count the number of “religious experiences” they have had on one hand, if they’ve even had any to count. And you don’t have to pluck Christians from different churches to expose this contrast. You can find this variation within a single church. Even charismatic churches that put religious experience near the spotlight will have plenty of members who just don’t have them. These members need not be sceptical of others’ experiences, they just acknowledge that their own Christian walk looks very different.

But why? What explains such vast disparity in the way God seems to interact with his children? Do Christians who lack these experiences suffer from some form of unfaithfulness or sin? Most Christians shy away from that explanation. It’s not very charitable. Krish on the sound-desk may not have many Holy Spirit encounters under his belt but everyone knows him as the church’s greatest “prayer warrior”. Do we really want to accuse him of a gross spiritual error? Alternatively, maybe Christians who have these experiences suffer from gullibility? Again, not a very popular explanation. Merissa who serves coffee may be quirky but her spiritual experiences brought her to faith and profoundly changed her life. Do we really want to accuse her of basing her spiritual life on an illusion?

No, by far the most popular explanation thrown around in churches is what I call the personality profile explanation. What we seem to notice is that there are patterns in the kinds of people who have lots of experiences and those who don’t. Usually, Christians try to articulate these two kinds of people as “feelers” and “thinkers”. And so, supposedly, what “feelers” most benefit from is emotional experience and what “thinkers” most benefit from is Bible study or theology. And so, God simply gives to each kind of person what most benefits them. Feelers get the religious experiences and thinkers don’t (what they get is more “heady”), in line with their personalities.

It’s a nice way to resolve the mystery without anyone’s feelings getting hurt. Both kinds of Christian – the experientially charged and the experientially lacking – are affirmed as having equally valid spiritual lives. Nobody gets accused of sin or self-deception. But while it scores points for social convenience, it scores very poorly on plausibility. I just don’t buy it. Here’s why.

First of all, as I argued in my previous post, the “feeler” versus “thinker” distinction is far too simplistic. But suppose we grant that Christians really can be categorised that way. (Or fill-in whichever other way you’d want to make the distinction.) The problem is that it seems equally plausible that God would try and balance us out rather than cater to our preferences. It’s just as plausible that God would try to stretch feelers by denying them the experiences they naturally desire and stretch thinkers by giving them experiences they aren’t naturally comfortable with. God, after all, wants to build our characters. Typically this involves taking us out of our comfort zones, not keeping us firmly within them.

Now this doesn’t rule out the popular psychological profile explanation. It just dispels the illusion that God obviously would interact with us in the way it states. The stronger objection, which should rule it out, is that the benefits of religious experiences for the Christian are clearly enormous no matter what the personality profile.

The Obvious Benefits

Consider the way a direct experience of God boosts one’s confidence in his existence and goodness. An experience of God makes God a tangible reality in one’s life, rather than a mere idea one believes in. Experiencing God makes it easier to say that one personally knows God, not merely knows about God. Experiencing God can allow for his love to truly be tasted so that it transforms one’s self-image. Experiencing God allows one to know that God has reached out to communicate in a person-specific way, beyond the church-wide address of the Bible. It can provide the spiritual equivalent of physical touch – a hug – in the context of grief and difficulty.

Are we really to think that God withholds these outlandish benefits to a type of person only because of their intellectual orientation? Does God really observe the fact that someone more readily picks up a theological book than dance to Hillsong and then say, “Nope, I don’t think this beloved child of mine would really benefit from having a direct encounter with my manifest presence. It’s just not her style.” This is surely implausible. The thinker would be immensely blessed by tasting God’s love, just as the less bookish person would be. None of the benefits of experience seem personality-dependant. 

And we all know this already. Those Christians who have frequent experiences certainly do. They stress the immense value of “life in the Spirit”. Their experiences are a rich source of spiritual nourishment. They balk at the idea of living a holy, Christian life without the tangible presence of God. They are desperate in their preaching for others to encounter Jesus, not merely to assent to ideas about him. They know that a life with these experiences is richer, all else being equal, than one without. The personality profile explanation only gets trotted out when they are caught flat-footed, embarrassed before a church friend who doesn’t have these experiences. “No, no, I didn’t mean to say that this is really important for everyone. God knows your personality and will work in a way that suits you.” It’s well meaning, but it's hard to say that it's truly representative of their convictions.

Those who lack the experiences aren’t ignorant to it either. They are often deeply bothered by their lack of experience. They can imagine how much the experiences would help them. They see the benefit in their friends. Indeed, there has always been a great asymmetry between the camps. Suppose the “feeler” tires of dependence on the experiences and wants to develop theologically and exegetically. Well, the feeler just picks up a book and gets on with it. By contrast, the “thinker” who doesn’t have these experiences can’t seem to change her circumstances. The thinker can’t just switch experiences on. And so eventually, after feeling stuck when the experiences don’t come, they need to find some way to accept that fact. The personality profile explanation offers some solace. But it’s false comfort; it’s not a good explanation.

I don’t deny that God can have good reasons to withhold such experiences. I just think it’s implausible that among those reasons, the desire to cater for personality preferences ranks anywhere near the top. Whatever explanation we reach for, it shouldn’t be that one. Cast about for another one. Or own up to one of the less flattering ones. Or maybe better yet, be content with mystery.

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