I’ve had some powerful faith experiences in my life. I remember a high school retreat in Prescott Arizona with youth from Lutheran churches all over Arizona. The experience was after Communion. We were in a circle, arm in arm. I had taken the risk of praying out loud in the group and my older brother was next to me. The presence of the Holy Spirit was real and beyond words. Tears flowed. There have been many more experiences of course, some of them, even more powerful than that retreat. There are the many moments I’ve shared with people who are near death. I think of servant trips in Mexico during college and some of my recent worship experiences in Ethiopia. Then there are all the powerful faith experiences that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have shared with me which far exceed mine. Some of them are those “near death” experiences where they saw a light and feel they got a glimpse of heaven. Yet, what should we make of these faith experiences?
I like to look at them as confirmation. What I mean is that these experiences confirm my faith, not only in God, but specifically in Jesus as the once for all self-revelation of God. To use a modern idiom, they are the “icing on the cake.” It is interesting though, that especially in our American religious context, personal experience is much more than the “icing.” It seems to me, one’s personal experience in our culture is elevated to ultimate truth. I can see why of course. You can’t argue away one’s experience and if cornered, one can always fall back on, “Well, this is my experience.”
Yet, people of all kinds of religious beliefs and actually even people with no religious commitments, report having “religious experiences.” Many Mormons that I have known will talk about a “burning in the bosom” experience while reading the Book of Mormon. My question is this: If someone has some kind of experience, does that mean whatever the experience refers to is true? Again, what is the proper place for our religious experiences?
In the New Testament, as filled with people having powerful experiences as it is, truth is not equated with those experiences. Truth is first and foremost the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth: his life, death, and resurrection. Truth is a historical event, an event which happened in time, in a particular place, and observed by many witnesses. These witnesses passed on the details of the event with its significance. My faith is solely based on this event and its message. For example, if one could prove or convince me Jesus was not raised from the dead, I would cease to believe no matter what personal experiences I’ve had. Conversely, if I’m convinced Jesus is indeed raised from the dead, it is true whether I have, or have not had, experiences that support that belief. The basis of my faith is the event and not personal experience. Experiences, as wonderful as they are, are not the foundation of faith. Yet, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our experiences are bad or to be ignored. Not at all. In fact, I think they should be celebrated! They are a gift of God. They confirm our faith but are not the foundation. It is actually dangerous to make your subjective experience the basis for truth. Our foundation is an event—the historical event of the life death and resurrection of Jesus. The icing without the cake is no cake.