Fabricating Ecstasy

On my drive up to Bellingham today, I was nostalgically listening to David Crowder. Listening to his song “You are my joy,” I was struck by the line,

            Love’s taken over me / and so I propose letting myself go / I am letting myself go

I looked at my console with the same irritated look I would give if my CD was skipping and asked out loud, “Why?”

In that moment my mind was instantly flooded with all of the anxiety and psychological tension that existed in the evangelical framework I was raised in.

Growing up, I spent most of my spiritual and intellectual energy attempting to have an encounter with God. The idea was never very concrete—I was taught from a young age the way we know God loves us (or, more precisely, that we are saved) was through “experiencing God.”

This kind of logic flows naturally from the Protestant idea of Sola Fide, and Max Weber even wrote an entire book about it. The only difference between the Weberian thesis of the Protestant work ethic and the modern evangelical idea of salvation by experience is that our spiritual currency has changed.

In the 16th century, after the structure of an outward, sacramental salvation came crumbling to the ground, people needed to look elsewhere for confirmation of their salvation. If not through baptism, if not through confession, how would one know that one is really saved? One easy way to know one’s eternal destiny was to simply look at one’s pocket book.

It’s not that the rich were the elect, but rather that the elect naturally became rich. The logic here is so simple as to easily miss it: If God had chosen you, wouldn’t He provide for you? If you were Elect, wouldn’t you be favored? In light of this idea, early Protestants, especially the English Puritans and French Huguenots worked very hard.

They worked hard because they wanted security, and they wanted security because they wanted proof of their salvation. The question of course wasn’t weather or not Faith alone saved you, but whether or not you really had Faith. Because there was no more structure to determine what concrete actions were Holy or not, the sacramental chasm left by Catholicism was filled with secular work.

So much for Weber’s thesis. These days, there’s an acute awareness and skepticism of any kind of “false gospel” that preaches health and wealth (though these kinds of movements are still very much alive.) But it’s not that the early Protestants were into a Prosperity Gospel. In fact, just the opposite: They didn’t want God to give them health and wealth, they wanted God to give them salvation. What was lacking, as we’ve seen, was a means to know whether or not salvation was granted. Fast-forward to the present in an industrialized, wealthy global economy, and we can begin to see how the signs and symbols of salvation have shifted: The modern Christian no longer tends to his outward-secular work, (for even the non-believers do this!) but instead looks to his inward-spiritual state.

There’s a lot of theology that leads up to this shift, but the shift can be traced very easily. Look at the American revivalist movements, the first and second Great Awakening—something new was happening. Tent revivals were filled with “Holy Rollers,” the fire of tongues began to catch and spread like wildfire (in America, anyway.) People rejected the “old Puritanical ways” and took up a new mode of soteriological gnosis: experiencing God. 

Crowder’s refrain of “letting go” is a rally call. It is a call to awaken the lazy spiritual worker and get him to start working towards an experience with God. Instead of working hard to secure a prosperous business life, the evangelical works hard to secure the elusive (and amorphous) encounter with God. 

I’m reminded of similar refrains from worship songs when I was younger: Lines like, “And I’ll become even more undignified than this” (meaning I’ll “let myself go” or “get wild” in the presence of God) and an endless repertoire of lyrics begging for God to “fill us up” so we could simply “catch a glimpse” because all we really needed was “one moment” in order to be “satisfied”.

We truly were hungry, desperate for God, but not in any measurable or rational way. We were at pains to know that God really loved us, and, unfortunately, we had been taught that the only way to really know for sure was if we felt something.

And so we took the work of salvation into our own hands; we were fabricating ecstasy. From altar calls to all-night worship sessions, we squinted our eyes and, like one in pain, lifted our arms up to the heavens in hopes of the elusive encounter

The great mystics of the Counter-Reformation, while holding moments of spiritual ecstasy dear, never attempted to create or contain them. St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola—all understood that God was still present—if not more present—in the seasons of absence and dryness. We cannot let ourselves go, because we cannot free ourselves.


5 thoughts on “Fabricating Ecstasy

  1. Yes. And. There might be a psychological piece to this puzzle as well. Some people are wired for the emotional experience more than others. I think there must be room for the reality and validity of those who DO experience Jesus in the ‘letting go’….(there are whole faith systems set up on this kind of meditative state practice)…. Could it be that differing expressions of Christian faith vary as much as the differing biochemical and emotional make up of their constituencies – (historical trends aside). Kind of a ‘you have your sacraments, I have my altar calls’ for of a thing? Millions have been certainly CERTAIN of their salvation due to the Real Presence of Jesus in an emotional, affective way sans sacramental assurances. I think the real trick might be to marry the two.

  2. Aric…I like your thoughts because I’ve definitely struggled over the years with the tension between God’s presence (which is constant…even in the “dry” times) and whether we need to “feel” it. I’m definitely guilty of allowing myself to feel bad because I haven’t “felt” something. Getting married has really helped me figure this out a bit because because I’m learning to rely on my new identity of being married to Christy rather than relying on my feelings about my marriage to Christy. I find contentment (even when marriage is hard) when I dwell on my status rather than my emotions. On the other hand, I’ve unfortunately done a good job over the years of ignoring my emotions for the sake of other things which sometimes sometimes leads to other unhealthy things (like poor emotional health and emotional honesty). Regardless, the point is that I appreciate your thoughts because you showed quite well that having to “experience” God is perhaps just another form of salvation by works…or salvation by experience, which is a very shifty foundation and becomes a never ending pursuit that will never really save or satisfy. I didn’t know you knew French btw

    • I don’t really know French, of course. I think your idea that the experiential element of worship can become a form of “salvation by works” is helpful. I would add, though, that these works aren’t fruitful because they stem from a place of anxiety and uncertainty instead of faith and hope.

  3. Great post. As you point out via Weber, the “experience gospel” really grows out of the sacramental vacuum. I think it might come via Calvin and Reformed cultures particularly, especially when they came to America. The centrality of the conversion experience as your way to be certain you were Elect, and then the revivals and everything else coming in to meet that anxiety by producing the conversion experience.

    I was just talking to a friend about Believer’s Baptism and how it fits into this framework where “adult convert” is the normative path. Even those of us who grew up in evangelicalism (I think) started to feel the dislocation when we were told as children that we weren’t Christians unless we’d made the decision ourselves — and as teens that we weren’t really following God unless we “knew” Him (which was a thing that apparently had to happen at a retreat following an hour-long session of just the bridge of “Here I Am to Worship”). I mean, people told me that it wasn’t all mountain-top experiences, but almost every worship event I went to was crafted to provoke a mountain-top experience, so what is the evangelical teenager to think?

    Part of the reason I was never baptized as an evangelical was because (1) competing ideas about what exactly it was and why it was important at all — after all, I’d “become a Christian” when I asked Jesus into my heart at age 3 — and (2) I was too ornery, or honest, to pretend I’d had a conversion experience, and I didn’t know what else baptism was supposed to be, if not “sign of commitment, displayed to others after having some sort of conversion experience.”

    What’s interesting (to me) is that, at least at this juncture in time, we have a couple of generations of evangelicals who, using this framework, have been able to raise kids who take religion and Christianity seriously. (This is now falling off some, tragically). Whereas the Christian traditions who, for centuries, had perpetuated the community via a more “organic” structure (ie., you’re born into the sacraments) have had more trouble keeping their kids within the community. It’s ironic because the adult-conversion framework literally starts with their kids outside of the community (and then exerts intense pressure to get them to come in), whereas the sacramentalist framework starts by putting the kids ritually inside the community and then (in the modern age) watches them walk away. Yet it’s still my feeling that the adult-convert system is the weaker one. Part of the reason for that may be that reliance on intense community pressure — there are a thousand reasons that pressure can lose traction and become unconvincing, and once that tie is broken, they are vulnerable to the winds of “inner experience truth.”

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