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Episode 20: Religious experience - do we need it and how to find it

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For arguments sake: where we take a debate, cut out the party politics and try to talk it out 

Do you need to ‘experience’ God in order to have real faith? Michael says he suggested this question because in his pastoral experience there are often questions about whether people should have had a spiritual or religious experience and whether you’re a Christian if you haven’t had one.

What if you don’t ever have that feeling some describe as an “immediate, powerful, palpable experience of the spirit” that can be of great encouragement to those who receive them?

Megan offers the flipside to this, in that she believes that some in a more intellectually-based faith tradition are often questioned about their spiritual experiences in a way that makes them feel like they’re in some way “dodgy”.

The way different faith communities deal with spiritual or religious experience can make this subject fraught.

Michael says his views have changed and he hopes ‘matured’. He believes God can give us religious experiences from time to time: they are individual and meant to encourage us. But because they are experiences we must be very careful, he says. We shouldn’t normalise those experiences to the extent that those with different ones don’t feel like they’re Christians or don’t feel like they have the Holy Spirit.

Megan has a different perspective, coming from her observations of those who don’t ‘experience God’. “Without experience, faith is ailing,” she says. “The experience of God must be present … but whether we’re noticing it is another thing.” The way we talk about those experiences and how we teach people to understand them is sub-par in the church today, Megan says.

How can we help people to be attentive to God in their lives. Megan believes a pastor must first be attentive to God in their own lives. “There needs to be more room for the contemplation part of the pastoral role,” she argues. If you’re also immersed in Scripture, you come to understand better how God speaks and acts. Michael says it’s also about teaching people to pray. Bible study should also be a place for spiritual direction. It doesn’t have to be just about reading the word and understanding the word, but about how to take that understanding into our lives to see the hand of God at work.

Listening to others’ experiences of God might also make us more attune to the work of God in our own lives, says Megan. It doesn’t always have to be listening to God at the top of a mountain or in a cave – it’s seeing God in your every day experience, how he meets needs. There is an attentiveness required.

A lot of the time the people who say they haven’t had an experience of God just need help with the vocabulary to use.

Michael warns against the dangers of making experience so much in the foreground that we forget to parse it through Scripture. “We don’t have a fresh revelation that overturns scripture.”

Also mentioned in this segment:

The secret life of us: in which we try to figure out what makes the other one tick

Megan and Michael discuss their own religious experiences and how they’ve affected their faith. They look back at how such experiences were spoken about in their families of origin.

Michael says he grew up in a Christian household often trying to deal with the tension of being treated as a Christian for as long as he could remember but also waiting for that moment of ‘conversion’. He says he certainly had an intellectualised sense of the faith especially in later teens and university.

Megan, on the other hand, says her mother is a person who has had many supernatural experiences and so she grew up talking a lot about those experiences and having some of her own.

The duo also open up about when they’ve felt spiritually dry and how they’ve managed to come back to God.

Also mentioned in this segment:

  • CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy“For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”

Marg and Dave: reviews from two people obsessed by stories, but not always the same ones. 

Les Murray (17 October 1938 – 29 April 2019) was a prize winning Australian poet, anthologist, and critic. His career spanned over 40 years and he published nearly 30 volumes of poetry as well as two verse novels and collections of his prose writings. He was rated in 1997 by the National Trust of Australia as one of the 100 Australian Living Treasures.

Murray’s poetry is full of his religious experience. He said it was because that was his experience.

“The true god gives his flesh and blood. Idols demand yours off you.” That quote, says Michael, which is from Murray’s poem Church, should be on church signs everywhere. “It points to the significance of Christ in this consumer economy that sucks us dry,” says Michael.

Poems mentioned in this segment:

Further reading:

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Find out more about the hosts of With All Due Respect:

Rev Dr Michael Jensen, rector at St Mark’s Anglican Darling Point, author, public commentator.

Rev Megan Powell du Toit, ordained Baptist minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology, editor of the journal Colloquium.

We got the idea of our two-header theology and culture podcast from this show: The Movie Show/At the Movies.

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