Swinging the Pendulum Back Toward Theology

Neglecting our theology and relying on our experiences of God can leave navigating rough seas without a map.

In my journeys in spiritual formation I put a high value on experiencing God.  In the west we tend to know about God, but may not know him.  We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus, but in my experience, many do not enjoy a rich, two-way relationship such as we enjoy with our close friends, family, and spouse.   Our prayer life may be rich, but it is often talking to Jesus and only rarely does it involve listening to what he says to us and rarer still is the practice of the presence of God — just being with him.

An important way we grow spiritually is to grow in our experience of knowing God.  We can do that through meditation, contemplative prayer, imaginative prayer, the process of spiritual direction, and so on.  OUr experiences of God are often intense, sweet, and life-changing.  As we press into those very personal experiences, we may swing the pendulum too far away from “knowing about God” as we focus on “knowing God.”  That can be a mistake.  Neglecting sound doctrine and theology (our knowledge of God) can lead us into trouble.

Recently I reread an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ masterful “Mere Christianity” that brought home to me the folly of neglecting our knowledge of God. Lewis describes a man who told him,

I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’†

Lewis gives us the analogy of a man sitting by the sea shore and deciding he knows the sea, having experienced it.  Yet, if we are to undertake a voyage across the sea there is much more we need to know.  We need to draw on the expertise of those who have gone before us, who have drawn the charts and maps that will help us as we sail. Theology and doctrine are, says Lewis, like the maps and charts.  They can help us understand the God at levels both broader and deeper than we can achieve by our own, singular, experiences.  The maps and charts are certainly less “real” than our experiences, but they show us things beyond our experience.

Lewis’ point is spot on.  If we decide that we don’t need to bother about theology or doctrine, that we can know all that we need to know of God through our experiences of him, we will likely find ourselves in trouble when storms blow and the seas become rough or when we find ourselves running aground on unfamiliar shores.  Having learned about God from those who have gone ahead before us will serve us well in those places. The map may be less real than our experiences, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.

Talk to your pastor or mature Christians whose judgement you trust.  Ask them what they would recommend you add to your reading list to make sure your knowledge of God is well rounded.   Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” is a great place to start!

†Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 64). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Featured image, “Mirrored Foucault Pendulum” ,by Hitchster.  Used under CC 2.0 license.

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