The Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Discernment

After reading my last post some might be wondering, How can we know anything about God if all we have are scattered "hints" and "guesses"? Another critique of grounding faith in religious experience is that, in today's American church, religious experience plays into our individualism. That is, after some experience of mine I can use it to trump all other claims upon me. This indeed would lead to deviance. I could divorce my wife or do any number of ills by simply stating that I've discerned, via my private intercourse with God, that "this is God's will." And, since personal autonomy is the ultimate trump card in American society, the claim that I've, privately, discerned that this is "God's will," allows me to walk away from other promises, authorities, or covenants.

So, I see two big problems with elevating religious experience, as I did in my last post:

1.) Coherence
2.) Individualism

Given these concerns I'd like to use this post and next to handle these issues. To start, I want to look at two very important NT stories that bear directly upon the questions I've just raised. In each story we see the church or an individual struggling to discern what God is up to, to find the TRUTH. In each story we see a few things:

1.) A question as to what God is wanting.
2.) A sharing of religious experiences.
3.) An attempt to weave those individual experiences into a more global, more coherent picture (i.e., my experience becomes the community experience and the community experience becomes my experience).
4.) Discernment: A guess or judgement, tentatively proposed, as to what God's will is.

In both stories I've changed the look of the text. I've used CAPS to point to areas where there is DISCUSSION, DIALOGUE, DOUBT, DEBATE, QUESTIONING, SHARING, DISCERNING or DECIDING. That is, I want to highlight in these stories how no one, at the start, via their own private encounters with God, is really sure what God's will is. God's will is discovered, in the end, by the communal act of sharing individual experiences to weave a larger story. This is critical in that this act does two things. First, it creates a coherent story out of a hodgepodge of Eliot's "hints" and "guesses." Second, it means that, and this is very, very important, YOU ARE NOT THE BEST INTERPRETER OF YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE. This undermines the individualism in religious experience. All our encounters with God must be placed at the feet of the community. Our experiences must, in a sense, "fit" the larger story. Our individual experiences are only a part of a much larger tapestry (hence my picture for this post).

In these stories I also underline my point from my last post, that religious faith is rooted in an experiential substrate, by putting all references or allusions to religious/mystical experience in [brackets]. My point is to highlight that, at the foundation, faith is an encounter with God that cannot be codified or reduced to propositional truths.

Read the passages below reflecting on these things. Watch how in Acts 15 the church, through sharing religious experiences, discerns God's will. Further, reflecting on last week's posts, notice how their conclusions are tentative and groping. That is, they are feeling their way forward. Notice in Galatians 2, Paul, after numerous mystical encounters with God, wonders if his labors have "been in vain." That is, how can we trust our private experiences with God? Might Paul be fooling himself? Spinning dreams or intuitions or hunches into a religion of his own creation? Notice, therefore, how he has to mingle his experience of the risen Jesus with Peter's, James', and John's experience with Jesus. Are their Jesus' the same? Only after weaving their experiences together do they discern that they are all indeed following the same Lord.

Acts 15: 1-31
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp DISPUTE and DEBATE with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this QUESTION. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they REPORTED everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."

The apostles and elders met to CONSIDER THIS QUESTION. After much DISCUSSION, Peter got up and addressed them: ["Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.] He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

The whole assembly became silent as they LISTENED to Barnabas and Paul TELLING [about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them]. When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, LISTEN to me. Simon has DESCRIBED to us [how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself.] The words of the prophets ARE IN AGREEMENT WITH THIS, as it is written:

After this I will return
and rebuild David's fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things
that have been known for ages.

"It is MY JUDGMENT, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, DECIDED to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So WE ALL AGREED to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. IT SEEMED GOOD to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.

Galatians 2: 1-2, 7-10
Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went [in response to a revelation] and SET BEFORE THEM THE GOSPEL THAT I PREACH among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, FOR FEAR THAT I WAS RUNNING OR HAD RUN MY RACE IN VAIN...they SAW that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, [who was at work in the ministry of Peter] as an apostle to the Jews, [was also at work in my ministry] as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when THEY RECOGNIZED the grace given to me. THEY AGREED that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

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