Thoughts on Religious Experience

I’m grateful that, for the most part, it seems my book Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will has been well received since it came out a year ago. If people have been critical of the book, it’s been in one of two directions.

On one side, a few people have felt like the book was dismissive of prayer and too casual about obeying God. Actually, I talk about prayer several times in the book, but I do not advocate the usual type of prayer that is always trying to divine God’s will. I think we should pray, but for wisdom and good hearts more than for direction. And as for obedience, my hope is that young people will be more attuned to God’s revealed commands when they spend less time worry about all sorts of supposedly hidden commands. Too many Christians waste time trying to be obedient to things God has never said (jobs, spouse, location) instead of focusing on what we know God wants from us (love, joy, faith).

On the other side, some have been concerned that I leave the door open, even just a smidge, for supernatural surprises. I believe the canon is closed and nothing should be added to or subtracted from Holy Scripture. I believe everything should be tested against Scripture. I believe the only sure voice of God is heard in Scripture. I believe the apostolic deposit is the once-for-all, nonrepeatable, non-improvable foundation of the church. I believe waiting to hear from God in dreams or visions is a bad idea. I also believe God can surprise us through non-discursive means of communication.

I was happy to discover (through a well-read man from our church) that Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), the great theologian and mentor to Charles Hodge, perfectly captured my thoughts on the matter in his Thoughts on Religious Experience:

Why God so frequently made His communications to His servants by dreams is not easily explained. Perhaps the mind is better prepared for such revelations when external objects are entirely excluded; or it might have been to obviate that terror and perturbation to which all men were subject when an angel or spirit appeared to them.

Whether God ever now communicates any thing by dreams is much disputed. Many, no doubt deceive themselves by fancying that their dreams are supernatural; and some have been sadly deluded by trusting to dreams; and certainly people ought not to be encouraged to look for revelations in dreams.

But there is nothing inconsistent with reason or Scripture in supposing that, on some occasions, certain communications, intended for the warning or safety of the individual himself, or of others, may be made in dreams. To doubt of this is to run counter to a vast body of testimony in every age. And if ideas received in dreams produce a salutary effect in rendering the careless serious, or the sorrowful comfortable, in the view of divine truth, very well; such dreams may be considered providential, if not divine. But if any are led by dreams to pursue a course repugnant to the dictates of common sense or the precepts of Scripture, such dreams may rightly be considered diabolical. (81)

Rock on, Archibald!

Dreams can be abused and twisted and overemphasized in all sorts of ways. But God can use them too, and has throughout history. Leaving the door open for supernatural surprises could mean you’re a charismatic. Or, just a good Presbyterian.