Telling others needs to be backed up with shared community
I "just want to feel something."
That’s an alarming thing to hear from someone wrestling with depression, anorexia or some other psychological challenge. People who have gone numb with sadness, fright or frustration can harm themselves just to reconnect with the world of feeling.
We all want to feel something. It’s only natural. We were created as feelers, from the slightest flutter in our tummies that tells us there might be a romantic possibility here to the tsunami of exhilaration that overwhelms us in a crowd cheering its team to victory.
Even philosophers want to feel something. I recently had reason to pore over the testimonies of top-level philosophers who relate how they came to Christian faith. Two collections of such fascinating reading are Kelly James Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe (IVP Academic, 1993) and Thomas V. Morris, ed., God and the Philosophers (Oxford UP, 1994). And what do most of these stories have in common?
Well, good rational arguments for the truth of Christianity, of course. The writers are philosophers, after all.
What also comes up a lot, however, are feelings. Peter van Inwagen, the John Cardinal O’Hara professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, recalls his journey to faith. "I began to experience a sort of pressure to become a Christian: a vast discontent with not being a Christian, a pressure to do something. … This went on and on. … I perhaps did not have anything like a desire to turn to Christ as my Saviour, or a desire to lead a godly, righteous and sober life, but I did have a strong desire to belong to a Christian community." He then joined a church, and a couple of years later underwent baptism as a convert.
Only if enquirers can experience gospel life in a community will the audacious claims of Christianity make sense.
The late William Alston, a former president of the American Philosophical Association, likewise says this. "So far as I am aware, it was primarily a process of responding to a call, of being drawn into a community, into a way of life. … I found the vertical dimension through the horizontal. I found God as a reality in my life through finding a community of faith and being drawn into it."
The great 18th-century American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards urged his fellow preachers to address not just people’s intellects and wills, crucial as that is, but also their affections, their convictions and values, their feelings. And he did so with church in mind, expecting his colleagues to declare the gospel in the context of a community actually living it.
About a decade ago, essayist David Shields issued what he called a manifesto challenging us to address reality hunger (Knopf, 2010). I agree we need to give people the truth, but we need to give the whole Truth, which entails also a Way and a Life. We thus need to preach that Good News in places where enquirers may not just hear about, but also witness and even participate in the new life that is the central promise of the gospel.
Such social contexts – I call them plausibility places – can be churches, but they can also be small groups, charitable societies, families or friendships. They don’t need to be perfect. And frankly, they can’t be. But they need to be authentic. They need to be sites of the Spirit’s vital presence and evident work.
Merely producing the highest octane Sunday morning singalong-plus-sermon may attract bored Christians from other churches, but it won’t prompt conversions – because it can’t. Only if enquirers can experience gospel life in a community will the audacious claims of Christianity make sense – because they have become manifest.
And those enquirers can experience that only if (a) we are growing such communities and (b) we have deliberately opened ways for newcomers to experience them, to enjoy them, to feel them.
I’m a theologian. I like ideas. I believe life goes better with good ideas, so I teach them for a living. But good ideas aren’t life. Life is life. That’s what Canadians want, since that’s what everyone wants – or, at least, those whom the Spirit is calling to faith.
People want to feel the real. So let’s get real.
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017). Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.