An oft-said statement in our present culture is “I am spiritual, but not religious.” The value is placed on one’s personal emotional experience with the Divine. There is, of course, merit in personal revelation. God communicates with us in many ways—experience being one of them. It is a source of encouragement to look back over my life and see how God has been present in much of my past. However, it is vital to ground this experience in God’s revelation through scripture. The apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that Satan comes to us dressed as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14). Experience can subtlely draw us away from God if not grounded.
C.S. Lewis addresses this perspective in The Joyful Christian. Following is an excerpt of this book:
“Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you…They all say “the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.” I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means “the science of God,” and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about him which are available. You are not children; why should you be treated like children?
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. 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!”
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real, to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Now Theology is like a map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God; they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own way are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
There are many theologians who have taught me about God, but those I value above all are those who were included in the cannon of the Word, the Bible. What better teachers are there than Moses, David, the gospel writers, Paul, and the others? I value the encouragement I received to study scripture and learn for myself. This is an attribute that I love about the fellowship of Churches of Christ–we are people of the Word. From the time I was a child, I was encouraged (yes, and at times forced), to be in the Word. I know Scripture well. With smart phones and scripture projected onto the front screen of the church, it is no longer a necessity to carry bibles to worship. But we continue to do so. It is symbolic of the freedom and encouragement we have to study for ourselves and take responsibility for knowing God.
There was a time in my life when I chose to turn away from scripture. Beginning at the age of twelve, I read through the Bible every year for many years. As a young adult, I decided I had had enough and was no longer going to be driven by guilt to read it. I was going to be with God in other ways. This was a healthy move for me. I needed this time of separation. I needed to find a way to be in the Word without the negative feelings I had associated with it from my youth. My faithful God presented this way when I “discovered” the psalms during a difficult period of my life. I could not get enough of them as I saw my words in the words of the psalmist. I learned anew how to be in scripture. It subsequently has become a friend and instructor—a way to be with and to learn who God is. It has become again a source of amazement to recognize how each time I come to the Word, in the words of Eugene Peterson, the word reads me.
My journey had led me to a deeper relationship with God. I cannot count all the influences and means by which God has communicated with me. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know they are of God and I would not trade those experiences of personal experience with God for anything on earth. But I keep God’s map close beside me. I know the character of God through reading the inspired words of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me. It keeps my bearing straight as I accept the opportunity to “go to sea”—to offer my life in service to God.