Why Feeling the Presence of Jesus is Not Enough

At least since the first Great Awakening, American Christianity has been built on the all-important goal of feeling the presence of Jesus. Feeling the presence of Jesus (however you “feel” Jesus) is an important part of religion, but there is a second, equally important question: Is there a Jesus on the other side of your feelings? What Jesus is on the other side of your emotive experience? Is there a God there on the other end? Is it really Jesus, or is it just your hormones, your racial/ethnic identity, your favorite songs? To ignore this question is to open yourself up to all kinds of idolatry.

It’s not a popular position to take in the cultural climate of American Christianity, but I am committed to promoting both the subjective and the objective dimensions of worship. Worship can’t just be about feeling the presence of Jesus. We are also called by God to think (and feel) deeply about the God who is there, not just our emotional experience of that God. Otherwise, we will find ourselves worshiping our music, our politics, or our endorphins.

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We need a holistic approach to worship, one in which critical analysis of God’s work among us and holy, passionate experience of God’s presence are intimately linked. It’s a beautiful cycle:

1. God shows up; we experience God in a passionate, emotional, bodily experience.
2. We reflect (later?) on how God showed up, and slowly start to build a working vocabulary for describing God’s actions among us. We take as much as we can from Holy Scripture to feed our vocabulary. Some words we use are decided to be closer and truer in their description of God and God’s works than others. Some practices are decided to be more faithful than others in how we respond to God’s action.
3. In the context of our revised set of words and practices, God shows up again, and we experience God in a passionate, emotional experience.
4. We reflect (again) on how God showed up, changing our earlier words and practices to be even more faithful.

The process continues indefinitely. We grow in love and knowledge of God. The interplay between the odd steps and the even steps is the interplay between worship and theology. It’s at the core of the Christian life.

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Two nerdy footnotes:

1. Of course nothing in this post is terribly original. It is all stolen with gratefulness from John Witvliet, David Kelsey, and a certain French theologian, who is unfortunately known for not being the most cuddly teddy bear in the toy box.

2. I’ll admit that in our current cultural moment, both objectivity and subjectivity have come under serious fire. We cannot say with certainty anymore whether there is a God out there, or whether there is a self inside of us. (Double yikes!) By grace the postmodern Christian is freed from both of these idols to hope for the knowledge of faith. In spite of our utter inability to know God or ourselves, God is gracious enough to reveal himself, and to illuminate our inner selves for self-knowledge by the light of revelation. But we can’t ground this knowledge in an objective standard (a rational system) or a subjective standard (feeling Jesus). The only ground of our knowledge of God is the self-revelation of God, received by faith, holistically integrating objectivity and subjectivity.

Called by God to be a Human Being

I’ve been trying to construct a working theological anthropology for a couple years. I’ve been trying to find a name for what I’m trying to articulate. I would call it either an “elective” or a “vocative” anthropology. (Any suggestions for a better name would be appreciated.)

What do I mean by “elective” / “vocative” anthropology? Mostly this: what makes us human, what constitutes our humanity is not anything that might be construed as intrinsic to us. It is construed “eccentrically” (to borrow David Kelsey’s term); what makes us human is the electing call of God to be human.

This means several important things. First, being human is primarily a relational category. We are human by virtue of a particular relation with God, that is, the relation of election. Normally election is used in theology when talking about salvation, but I would like to suggest that election may be an equally fruitful category when talking more broadly about our vocation to be human beings. Our status as human beings is conferred upon us by God. It is a status that is maintained by the faithfulness of God. This means, hypothetically, that the only way we could be or become “not human” would be by a revocation of our status by God.

Secondly, and consequently, no other factor determines our status as human beings, including race, ethnicity, social class, developmental disability, or gender identity, to name a few disparate examples. Not even sin determines our status as human beings, because sin does nothing to destroy God’s call placed upon us to be human beings. (In this way, sin can be partially construed as a refusal on our part to be what God has already called/declared us to be: human beings.)

I think that an elective or vocative theological anthropology could have a lot of interesting implications for a Christian social theory, and also for a Christian interpretation of evolutionary biology, especially as it relates to the question of an historical Adam and Eve. If evolutionary biology is correct in its way of explaining the world (and, as a scientific “way-of-seeing,” we have to concede the possibility that it could be quite wrong), what makes Adam and Eve (and all human beings) qualitatively different from monkeys or ape-like humans (or any other living creature)? From the standpoint of an elective or vocative anthropology, it is not DNA, or capacities for emotions or cogitation, or any other biological factor that makes one a human being. Could it be that it is only the external election of God that makes one a human being?