How We Ended Up Making God About a Personal Inward Experience

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I’ve been studying the Trinity in my early morning readings at McDonalds. You’ll have noticed this theme in my morning tweets if you follow me. One of the books I’m reading is An Introduction to the Trinity by  Declan Marmion & Rik Van Nieuwenhove. Below they offer a brilliant summary of their take on modernity and what it did to the formation of our relation to God as modern Enlightenment people. As a result, we focus on inward experience (we’re narccissitic in our relation with God). Oprah is the paradym for the way we think of religion and God. We have a separation of sacred and secular, something unthinkable before the Enlightenment. We, as moderns, do not come naturally to seeing all of creation, work, family, etc. as the arena of the glory of God. Read it will you? And then tell me if this helps explain where evangelicalism has become trapped within modernity. All comments welcome.

The emphasis on religious subjectivity (begun by Descartes) continued throughout the Enlightenement period  and its religious counterpart the Pietist and Puritan movements, taking the form of of an analysis of consciousness or a focus of the believer’s faith experience. At the same time, there emerged a scientific worldview that posited an underlying intelligible structure in nature which could be studied, that is observed and measured without reference to God. David Hume’s (1711-76) naturalistic view of the world would effectively eliminate God from a world that no longer reflected its divine ground. Instead, the locus for God was restricted to the inner self, preoccupied with personal conversion and sanctification. The emerging worldview, exemplified in the discoveries of Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642) and above all Isaac Newton (1643-1727), culminated in a deistic ‘colckmaker’ God, who set the universe in motion, but who did not otherwise intervene. Immanuel Kant (1724-84) ultimately selaed the fate of natural theology when he limited human cognition to the phenomenal realm. We can have no knowledge of ‘noumena’ – objects lying beyond experience – by way of pure reason. Philosophers and theologians would subsequently find it difficult to argue from sense experience to transcendent reality such as God. religion was in danger of being reduced to morality and God to a guarentor of happiness for the religiously virtuous. p. 9 An IntroductionThe Tinity


P.S. I took the post down on “On Not Giving The Finger to Your Local Church” because I was concerned it might be misunderstood in some conversations we’re having at our own local church. Not wanting to give anyone the finger unawares, I took it down and maybe will post it at a later time when more appropriate.


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12 responses to “How We Ended Up Making God About a Personal Inward Experience

  1. Interesting. A monk friend of mine recently posted about praying with our eyes closed and how that implicitly turns “spiritual work” inward. He remarked how icons of the saints in the act of contemplation always had their eyes open. Turning “spiritual work” outwards.
    Though merely opening our eyes won’t necessarily change our experience of God from internal to external, I thought it was an intriguing analogy. I worship with a community that gathers in a storefront. Praying for the neighborhood while you watch people physically walk by has an interesting effect.

  2. Dave, have you seen Michael Horton’s book, “In the Face of God”? He argues from a reformed perspective that we have made the faith too mystical and about our inward experience of God. I’m not convinced of his highly sacramental solutions, but I think he raises some legitimate concerns and ones similar to what you are raising here.

  3. Simultaneous to this “emerging worldview” was the rise of the machine. Over time, the machine became the primary metaphor for life. A machine (unlike a body) is a collection of parts that when taken apart still work, awaiting reassembly. When life is seen as a machine, compartmentalization is encouraged. The spiritual is compartmentalized, confined to a person’s inner or private world.

  4. Well it certainly made it easier to make the Christian experience all about “inwardness”… but the piece of data that I can’t make “fit” with this analysis is that it seems to me that in wide swaths of historical evangelicalism, history really was seen as a theater of the divine and Christian action in the realm of society/politics/etc was encouraged. Isn’t that one of the angles of the so-called “Bebbington Quadrilateral”… ie., “activism”? Its hard to explain that existence of that angle if the above were true in a complete sense.
    Thoughts? Am I misunderstanding what you’re saying??

    1. Andrew,Interesting, although I think the real manifestation of the epistemology in evangelicalism occurred post 1920’s and the modernist fundamentalist controversies … here the Bebbington activism took a turn towards saving souls off the sinking ship of society …

  5. as a christian in an urban postmodern secular neighborhood in seattle, i have continued to innovate new ways for struggling believers to reapproach an abandoned faith-practice. one way is a mystic emphasis, the experience of god directly, rather than soley rehashing theory of god. but our prayer and meditation is more “open eyed” rather than closed eyed, more body-soul rather than brain. it is feeling the presence of god as we walk roads and eat dinners and fall asleep. we struggle, each day, to saturate the experience of god with every element of being alive, and people are coming around again.

  6. I am doing some reading through the works of liberation theologians…
    Gustavo Gutiérrez would argue that this dualistic approach to reality is not only a source of the privatization of the salvation experience, it is the primary means by which those of us that follow Christ have nothing to say, and through our silence give way to, the systemic sin issues of poverty and oppression of the weak.

    By bifurcating the sacred from our civil lives we have justified ourselves as blameless for the effects of modernity of which we (in the north) are the main social and economic beneficiaries.

  7. Can we simply look at the ministry of Jesus to see the correct view of this? Jesus healed others, cast demons out of others, provided food for thousands of others, taught hundreds or thousands of others. Most of his time in prayer was to receive more instructions on how to obey the Father is ministering to those outside himself. Isn’t this the model we are to follow?
    It should not surprise us, in the narcissistic culture in which we live, that even our concept of God would become focused on self – but all the more reason to “repent and turn to God”.

  8. Well, I can see “The emphasis on religious subjectivity . . . taking the form of of an analysis of consciousness or a focus of the believer’s faith experience.” But I also see in evangelicalism, particularly in the more conservative branches, an emphasis on religious objectivity which takes the form of a “Father, Son and Holy Scriptures” faith, which is expressed through that often takes the form of using expository preaching as the central/only real means of grace.
    Not that this weakens the thesis; on the contrary, I think this kind of emphasis is the “option B” that modernity has presented to us. In either option, the role of the Spirit in and through all of creation, and the role of God’s people to embody Christ in truly communal and holistic fashon are greatly diminished.

  9. This may be a bit over simplified, but I believe it’s basically true:
    If one goes to a church where they will not baptize babies, then it’s going to be awfully hard to find the gospel there, because everything will revert back to you…and what YOU DO.

    The whole things starts off on the wrong foot (YOUR decison) and continues that way all throughout life.

    Pretty sad.

    1. Steve,all that assumes (in believer’s baptism) that is was the believer’s choice in the first place. A “decision” can also be understood as “a response” … to me that’s where evangelicalism went wrong. If your account holds true of baptism, there can be no converts/ proselytes? No?

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