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.