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What role does “experience” play in our life of faith? Is it bad?

September 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek

franscesca_resurrection539x600Dear Father John, I have been following your blog since the beginning, and I have noticed a pattern in your answers – a pattern that disturbs me. You seem consistently to counsel people against trusting in their experience of God. You seem to recommend instead a kind of abstract faith. But didn’t Jesus become man precisely in order to give us an experience, so that our faith wouldn’t have to be so abstract and dry? You have confused me.

This is one of the disadvantages of the blogosphere; you just can’t ever seem to explain yourself fully! I am pained at causing you confusion and internal turbulence. Let me see if I can clarify some things in order to start untying this knot.

Different Kinds of Experience

On the one hand, I fear that I am guilty as charged. I do council you against trusting too much in one particular kind of experience of God: emotional experience. As human beings, we have different levels of experience. We experience things on the level of our five senses, our instincts and passions (the drives and inclinations built in to our bodily nature), our emotions, our conscience, our intellect, and our will. These are different levels, but they are not entirely distinct; the human person is a wonderful harmony of physical and spiritual interaction. That’s how God designed us. But even though the different levels are not entirely distinct, not totally isolated from each other, there is a hierarchy of importance among them.

Ordering Experience for Maturity

To understand this, think about the term “maturity.” Infants are immature. They live only at the level of sense experience and instinct. They cry when they are hungry, cold, or uncomfortable. Children are a bit more mature. They are learning to govern their senses and their instincts, so they ask mom for a snack when they’re hungry, instead of crying. But they are still emotionally and spiritually immature. This is one of the reasons they can be so endearing, and so infuriating. They don’t know how to think and judge for themselves – they still need dad to hold their hands when they go out for a walk. Nor do they know what they are supposed to do with their emotions – they don’t understand why mom won’t let them watch a certain very enjoyable TV show; they can’t grasp how it could be bad for them if it is so enjoyable.

A sign of maturity in an adult is consistent order among all the levels of human experience. Mature adults keep their senses, instincts, and emotions in harmony, guided by their reason and faith towards their true life-purpose: to know, love, and serve God, and to love their neighbors as themselves. They are like a master charioteer who is able to keep four different horses pulling together in harmony towards his worthwhile destination (to borrow an image from Plato). They don’t let strong passions or instincts, or waves of negative or positive emotions, or intellectual pride lead them away from the path of God’s will (the commandments, the responsibilities of their state in life, the inspirations of the Holy Spirit).

The Place of Emotional Experience

So we have different levels of experience, and the level of emotional experience is not the most important one. My emotions can be affected by all kinds of irrational factors: weather, biorhythms, other people’s offensive behavior… And so, if I guide my life by my emotions, I will inevitably be led astray; I will have an unstable life, like a dry leaf being blown around in the autumn breeze. This doesn’t mean that emotions are unimportant. God gave them to us, and without them we would be inhuman. The point is, we need to educate our emotions, just as infants need to learn how to govern instincts and passions. We need to understand that the experience of faith is rooted in a deeper place than our emotions; it is rooted in our minds and our wills. Our friendship with God is based on a spiritual recognition, which occurs under the influence of grace, that God is our Lord and Savior, that he is worthy of our love, reverence, and obedience. That recognition is an ongoing thing; it may begin with a powerful, born-again experience that involves not only our intellect and will, but also our emotions and our passions. It may be boosted and renewed periodically through powerful, emotionally charged experiences of God’s presence. But if God takes away those gratifying emotional experiences for a period, which could be long or short, that doesn’t alter the reality of the recognition, the reality of our experience of God’s majesty and goodness. Rather, he is teaching us to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

All of this gets even more complicated when we remember that sin (both original and personal) has disrupted the harmony that should exist between the different levels of our human experience. Our senses, instincts, passions, emotions, and will often rebel against what our reason and faith show us to be true and good. Sometimes, in fact, our passions and emotions can pull us so strongly away from God’s will that we experience excruciating pain – think of Jesus in Gethsemane. He was taking our sin upon himself, and as a result his human nature entered into agony; it took intense prayer and heroic self-sacrifice for him to bring his whole human nature into harmony with his Father’s will.

Our Present Plague

Now, it is true that I have repeatedly cautioned against trusting too much in our emotional experience of God – at least, I have intended to do so. There is a specific reason for this. Our culture is consumeristic. That means we are constantly, daily, hourly, being bombarded by images, words, and jingles that are trying to convince us to buy something. Billboards, commercials, Web ads, radio ads, movie previews, spam, mass mailings – unless you live in a monastery (or go on retreat in one), you are positively besieged by consumer propositions. This is the air we breathe. Furthermore, what is the most effective way for these producers to convince you to buy their product? Is it by presenting you with a syllogism, an extended, rational defense of why you need a particular item and exactly how that item will add existential value to your life-experience? Hardly. The shortcut to your decision mechanism is through your instincts and emotions. A billboard doesn’t have time for syllogisms; it has to bypass your reason and grab you by manipulating your emotions, often subliminally. And so, from the time we were toddlers, we have been immersed in a cultural milieu saturated with expert emotional manipulation. As a result, we have been conditioned by this atmosphere to equate emotional experience with true value. This consumer conditioning has been further reinforced by the strong entertainment component that has emerged in our modern economies. Through technological developments, we have come to have much more time on our hands, which we tend to devote to entertainment, and entertainment (especially popular entertainment) stimulates, above all, the emotions.

The result of this is simply that in our culture we tend to depend too much on emotional experience and too little on the deeper experience of faith, virtue, and spiritual truth. If something doesn’t give us an emotional return pretty quickly, we tend to dispose of it or disregard it. This is why, for example, Dan Brown’s books are read by millions, while Tolstoy and Sienkiewicz are truly treasured by dozens. This is why, for example, more than half of Internet traffic is directed to pornography Web sites. This is why, for example, it is so hard for most of us to spend 30 minutes in silence and prayer without distractions, and so easy to pay full attention to a two-hour Hollywood film.

Stepping towards Maturity

To actually grow in our relationship with God, therefore, we need to wean ourselves off an over-dependence on emotional experience. This doesn’t mean we should stifle emotional experience – that would be inhuman. Rather, we need to learn to govern our emotions instead of being governed by them. We need to learn to evaluate our lives, relationships, and activities not primarily according to how we feel on an emotional level, but according to what we know to be true on the level of our reason enlightened by our Catholic faith. This is the path to recover the true interior harmony that will enable us to experience the deeper satisfactions of spiritual experience, an experience which gradually brings our emotions into sync with our faith. This is the path to Christian joy and peace, which are so deep that they turn crosses into resurrections and so contagious that they turn victims into victors.

I do not want to disparage emotional experience in our Christian journey: God also works through that experience. I only want to encourage spiritual maturity. And in a world like ours, that may require over-emphasizing, at least a little bit, the dangers of emotionalism.

I hope this has helped to dispel your confusion. In future posts I will try to discuss more often the positive role that emotions can have in our spiritual life, so as to avoid giving the wrong impression that we should all become Puritans.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • This is a great response, very clear and very instructive.

    I think I have heard Fr. mention in a talk once the idea of the what I think is referred to in Scripture in the old testament as ebenezer- the remembrance of those things God has done or ways in which one has experienced God’s direction or work in one’s life in significant ways. If it fits with where he wants to take this discussion-can he perhaps give some reference about the role those things as experiencing God can or should have in our spiritual lives?

  • Teresa Marie

    It would serve us well, Father, to also emphasize the fruits of emotionalism. There are not only dangers. Ignatius of Loyola teaches us much about the value of our emotions in prayer.

    I am so happy to see this question. I already have trouble questioning my experience with God. At times I get discouraged with what I read here because the goals seem to lofty and unattainable. It seems to me that a sort of perfectionism can set in with the constant trying to compartmentalize every movement and getting them precisely in sync. Of course, that is the ideal but life happens, there is weakness and we sin.

    I’d like to share a great example of not trusting God’s experience, and learning why He calls me (us) to do so. He does work through emotions.

    This week I “thought” He told me something in prayer at adoration. It elicited a gut-wrenching emotional response from me because it addressed a painful situation and was a new revelation about it. I doubted I had heard God (“that certainly CAN’T be God’s voice”). Then a Scripture verse came to mind. (“No way that scripture verse is coming from God. It won’t have anything to do with what I think I just heard.) I decided to look up the verse, just in case… I melted in a heap of tears when the scripture confirmed what I “thought” I had heard. I cried because (a) the scriptural message itself addressed a difficult area (b) it confirmed that I had heard the Lord in prayer c) it confirmed that I had heard the Lord about what scripture to look up and (d) it confirmed that He was paying attention to my situation. I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what I heard was authentic – and I think it’s safe to say it was a very emotional experience! Take away the emotional aspect of it, the “meat” remains – the message and the hope He gave addressing my situation. In addition to speaking to me, God touched my heart that evening, and it resonates yet today. That was gift. In non-theological terms, it was “very cool!”

    “Experience” can play a powerful role. We have to be discerning as well, but not to the point of doubting God.

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