Cheryl Lawrence: The hermeneutic of suspicion


Pastors often are profoundly uncomfortable talking about religious experiences. As much as we are attracted by the mystery of God, it also frightens us, writes a pastor. But is skepticism really the right response to Christians who want to share their encounters with the divine?

Last year, I had a strange prayer experience. It was somewhat frightening, yet also awesome. It was not the first time I’d had such an experience, but it was the most memorable.

It is difficult to put the prayer experience itself into words. I had been meditating and praying on the lectionary text for the week, Luke 17:11-19, in which Jesus heals 10 lepers and only one leper returns to thank him. As I was praying and imagining the biblical scene, I suddenly lost control of the prayer. I was no longer speaking to God, but God certainly was making Godself known to me.

The prayer ended abruptly with the deep and painful conviction that I take the healing power of God -- conveyed through the church -- far too lightly.

Later, after I had talked out the prayer experience with my spiritual director and was in the midst of writing a sermon, I had an additional insight: I had been treating someone I know like a leper. The person is a convicted sex offender, and the whole world treats him like a leper, which made the insight particularly poignant. The realization of my actions stopped me cold and rendered me speechless with shame.

Before I had a spiritual director, I would have kept this experience to myself. I had learned the hard way that many Christians, including pastors and denominational authorities, do not accept the validity of such experiences.

I also might have fretted over the authenticity of the experience myself, wondering whether it really came from God. Pastors, who ought to be the first to acknowledge that God communicates through prayer, often shy away from descriptions of divine encounters that are not mild -- even our own.

Yes, we will say, God communicates his love for us with us, through mission work, prayer, Eucharist or a great worship service. But please, don’t tell us about seeing visions or hearing voices. I can only imagine how I, as a pastor, might cringe if a church member told me that he or she had held a conversation with an angel, for example.

Yet why would my first reaction be doubt? Didn’t Mary hold a conversation with an angel?

Christian leaders often have a limited view of how a person may experience God’s communication, despite the Bible’s numerous descriptions of visions, voices, angel visitations and other divine experiences given to God’s people.

When I was a layperson, I remember witnessing an adult Bible study leader dismiss a class participant’s story of sitting quietly on a rock near a river, noticing a number of butterflies around her and suddenly sensing quite strongly that God wanted her to know that her recently deceased mother was at peace, with God. The Bible study leader suggested, wasn’t it more likely she imagined the communication from God in order to comfort herself? Wasn’t the perceived experience really just wish fulfillment?

I am currently training to become a spiritual director, and this training has helped me finally to name what is going on. Call it the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Divinity students are familiar with this term, used to criticize the ways scholars and pastors can be suspicious of the historical accuracy of the Bible. I would also apply it to the impulse of many religious leaders to suspect automatically that voices, visions, sudden insights, strange coincidences and other personal experiences of God are not real.

Asking, “Did this really happen?” or “How do you know this experience was of God?” might seem to be reasonable questions. But I think it is premature as a first reaction to a description of a person’s close encounter with the divine. The questions probably have more to do with our own anxieties, as pastors or Christian leaders, than about the person who had the experience. The fact is, we pastors often are profoundly uncomfortable talking about religious experiences. As much as we are attracted by the mystery of God, it also frightens us.

Taking an experience seriously means allowing that it might really have happened and might really have come from God. We don’t know how to deal with mystical prayer, and some of us (particularly Protestants) are not sure it really exists. And if we ourselves have never experienced God in a mystical way, we doubt that others have, either.

Pastors are more comfortable -- and helpful, we believe -- explaining away the experience. A mystical experience was just an overactive imagination; it was brought on by stress or grief; it was wishful thinking; it was a way of coping with this or that situation.

But I believe that our attempt to be helpful by explaining away the incident can have the opposite effect. Our quickly dismissing, discounting or disbelieving an experience can have a harmful effect on the Christian trying to describe it. He or she is unlikely to share again.

How would it change things if Christian leaders assumed that the person who was struggling to describe a divine encounter was telling the truth?

In my spiritual direction course, I am learning to listen, to assume that God does communicate with God’s people, to accept (not immediately suspect) religious experiences and to help the Christian who has come to us better describe -- and savor -- a close encounter with the divine.

I no longer think it’s my job to respond to such confessions with skepticism. The more fundamental question is, Did the experience draw this person closer to God?

Isn’t that what pastoral ministry is all about -- helping others (all of us) notice, appreciate and be transformed by our experience of the living God?