In this article posted on the Christian Web site ‘Network Norwich’, the minister of Surrey Chapel, Tom Chapman (seen above with his wife), describes his struggle with a serious brain tumor. After quoting Isaiah 43:2 (“when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you.”) he goes on to say:
This is not, I think, a guarantee that we will always be aware of him holding our hand. That was not my experience, and don’t think it is the Bible’s promise. The point is not that we will never feel alone, but that we will never be alone. Cue “Footsteps in the sand.” Of course, if this promise never touched our emotions in any detectable way, we might reasonably start to doubt its reality – experience matters. But we must never reduce what is true to what feels true. And so I got wet, but didn’t drown.
We see here an age old theme, namely the interplay between feeling and knowing, between sensing and believing, between perceiving something and thinking something. Specifically we find, in this case, feeling, sensing, and perceiving the presence of God being contrasted with knowing, believing, and thinking God to be present.
As I have written elsewhere: “Ideas Versus Experience!” is a slogan expressing the uneasy relation between what we think the world to be and what our actual experience suggests it is. Experience makes or breaks ideas.
So much of our thought turns on this dichotomy. So much of thinking life is taken up with the attempt to make sense of a world for which our immediate perceptions only ever provide a small sample. The struggle to join the dots of our experience into the wider understanding of a theoretical framework is a ubiquitous activity. The struggle is particularly poignant if a theoretical framework tells us that in spite of the immediacy of troubling experiences, things will turn out to the good in the end.
But although the dialectic between experience and theory is part and parcel of the human predicament there is often a great yearning to short cut this sometimes-tedious process. In particular, the devout have a tendency to be seduced by the promise of a direct connection with the Divine through sublime mystical experience. They are therefore more likely to be susceptible to the instinctual and inscrutable prepackaged conclusions of the intuitive 'right side of the brain' than to the analytical ‘left side of the brain'*. In this context there is a spiritual premium on sublime emotional contact with the divine; anything less is considered to be spiritually inferior.
Large swathes of evangelical Christianity are in denial about the fact that all of us see the cosmos through theoretical frameworks. They hate the taint of the theoretical; They despise so-called doctrine and ‘head knowledge’; They affect to have a direct communion with God via gnostic connections and frequently express fideist sentiments; Viz:
If you always process salvation through your mind you will never enter the fuller things in your walk. You must move from a place of cognitive reasoning ability to a place where faith and belief flows through your spirit and not your head … God is beyond your logic.
.... they don’t want a faith contaminated by the analytical mind; they affect to have a rustic faith where ‘just knowing’ is all there is to it; a plain and simple faith uncomplicated by whys and wherefores. But the view I have quoted above is inconsistent as it is itself an expression of a theoretical position, albeit an incoherent one.
The struggle that Tom Chapman relates is very candid, very true to life, and above all, very moving. Sometimes it seems that Christians who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death have to be almost apologetic about not being on the mount of transfiguration. It is a perverse gnostic logic that estimates high spirituality to be measured by transfiguration experiences; accordingly those who are not exactly on the mount of transfiguration confound a popular spiritual paradigm and thus are to be applauded for having the courage to own up to the actual reality of their spiritual life. True spiritual values are, in fact, the very opposite of gnostic values. Those who traverse those dark valleys where hills hem them in, where they cannot see the horizon, where immediate experiences seem at odds with their grasp of the big picture, are facing a spiritual test that few of us wish to face. In that test, knowledge, theory, and analysis, objects so despised by today's touchy-feeley spiritual paradigm, provide the vistas onto a wider perspective that feeds hope and faith.
My prayers and hopes are with Tom Chapman and his family. I applaud his intellectual integrity as he drinks from the cup chosen for him. We all dread this cup and feel relieved that it hasn’t (yet) been served us; but there is no good reason why one day it might not come our way and who knows we may fail at the test; one works out one’s faith in fear and trembling. Tom Chapman’s integrity is to be cherished in the face of an evangelicalism that is so often inclined to compromise its authenticity by affecting to glory in the act of sacrificing intellectual integrity to the murky waters of fideism.
* The intuitive right side vs the analytical left side is an over simplification of brain operation, but it serves as an approximation and metaphor in this context.