The Unbearable Emptiness of Religious Experience for Its Own Sake; or, Why Having an Object Makes It Possible to Love

"The turn to experience [in mainline and evangelical Protestantism] is a failure because it's based on a misunderstanding of how experience actually works.  Focusing on your experience waters down your experience, because experience feeds on what it experiences, just as love feeds on news of the Beloved.  We can use the same picture to illustrate this point as in chapter 9.  In Christian faith, your experience is like the arrow on side A of the picture.  It's the verb in a sentence like 'I believe in Christ.'  The arrow is aimed at Christ, just as the verb is 'aimed' at its grammatical object, which is Christ.  Very significantly, it is not aimed at itself, which is why on side B, what the person on side A is experiencing, the arrow, disappears.  That is to say, the experience of faith is not about faith or experience but about Christ.  We don't believe in our experience, we believe in him.  So Christian faith and the experience that comes from it are both nourished by paying attention to Jesus Christ.

"The turn to experience directs our attention quite differently.  It tries to enhance the experience of the person on side A, the Bride who longs for her Beloved, by making her pay attention to her experiences, as if the fundamental thing for her to look at is the arrow there on side A.  This gets her looking at something different from what Christian experience looks at, which is the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, the person on side B.  When you look at side A, Christ is still in the picture, there at the far end of the arrow.  But he's the smallest part of the picture, because what's in the foreground, where your attention is focused, is yourself and your experiences.  And what happens over time, as you and your experiences take up more and more of your attention, is that Christ keeps fading further into the background.  He gets more and more out of focus, continuing to grow indistinct until he disappears in a kind of foggy haze.

"This happens because experience is no substitute for sound doctrine.  When doctrines like the Trinity and incarnation are not taught, we start to forget who Christ really is.  We start to think of Jesus as if his job was teaching us how to live rather than being Savior of the world, and we start to use the word 'God' generically, as if it had nothing in particular to do with Christ.   In this way Christian experience becomes less and less Christian.  It comes to be less about the person of Christ, and therefore less personal and more abstract.  You can see this in the German theologians who invented liberal theology: they wrote long books about Christian experience and consciousness that are extraordinarily abstract and dreary to read.

"Since what makes experience personal is the person it's about, to focus on the experience itself apart from the person makes it impersonal.  It's like people going on and on about how strongly they feel or how they're 'looking for love.'  That's all very abstract until they can say who is the one they love.  For feelings, desire, love, and faith are quite impersonal if they don't connect us to particular persons.  They're like arrows pointing nowhere in particular.  And just as an arrow has not yet been put to use as an arrow if it has no target, so a feeling of love is not yet really love when it has no Beloved."

--Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), chap. 10.


  1. I was a student of Dr. Cary's for a couple of courses in undergrad. Really fun guy and passionate about convincing young evangelical Christians to stop fretting about their spiritual lives and to read some theology that was older than their grandparents. It sounds like this book is a compilation of his favorite rants--not that there's anything wrong with that. :)

  2. Yes, that is what he says in the introduction: if you know him, you've probably heard the rants! I have been listening to his lectures on the history of Christian theology--great stuff, and very engagingly presented! The video that I link above gives a good flavor of his style, for those who don't know him yet.

  3. " We start to think of Jesus as if his job was teaching us how to live rather than being Savior of the world..."

    I find this statement absolutely shocking, disincarnating, infinitely sad. People have turned to experience (and I agree with the vacuity of pursuing experience for its own sake) precisely because doctrine is empty and no longer refers to anything.

    Doctrine is language, and therefore only ever provisional because it is making a two-dimensional representation of a living reality (see part I of McGilchrist's 'The Master and his Emissary'). The above author confuses the historical Jesus, a person, with the en-Christing process, the process he came to teach, which is about how to live, to realise the kingdom of heaven within in this life. Faith is not faith in doctrine; it's faith that goes beyond all human concepts to free-fall in the love of God.

    For a version of "Christianity" that claims to be bible-based, these quoted paragraphs are about as far from biblical teaching and the early church as one could get—opposite, in fact. A sad, sad commentary on the distal consequences of the institutional church's suppression of the work of silence, which was more or less complete by the 15th c.

    Your own glorious book, Rachel, shows that there is absolutely no excuse for atonement theology... And thank you again for this thought-provoking blog!

  4. @Maggie: I am sorry that to you Prof. Cary's argument seems sad. I find it immensely liberating and uplifting, much as I find Dorothy Sayers' great essay on "The Dogma is the Drama." Thus the title I gave to my post: having an object (a Beloved) makes it possible to love. I think that this is also what my book is about: learning to love by loving Mary loving Christ. I find this much more envigorating than "experience" valorized for its own sake.

  5. Also, Prof. Cary is very clear in his own understanding of Christian theology that there is far more to doctrine than the historical Jesus. This, in his view, is why we need to study doctrine: because otherwise we lose exactly what you say he has lost: an understanding of the immensity of love poured forth in the Incarnation.

  6. I see, you are confusing "person" with "historical Jesus." No: Prof. Cary is speaking in Nicaean terms. He means the Second Person of the Trinity, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Thus his point about the necessity of studying doctrine: people don't even know the language anymore for talking about God.

  7. Part 1

    I entirely agree about "experience" as you know, but there are still problems. First, beholding — loving — does not take an 'object'. Loving does not objectify. In love, especially this sort of love, there is no geometry.

    One of the Fathers (I forget which) said, 'every statement about God is a lie' and he has a point, because every doctrinal statement is a flattening of reality, a trivializing of it, of the knowledge that comes to us from what I call 'deep mind', or what Julian calls Christ enthroned in the depth of the soul. Granted we need a place to begin, but only if those statements, images and 'objects' efface themselves; we cannot get stuck there. That's what I found so alarming about Cary's argument; he didn't seem to want to go any farther that doctrine—which is idolatry, according to the Desert Fathers. Pride is hanging on to particular ideas.

    While Cary may intend to say something about 'more than the historical Jesus' that isn't the way it comes across! He seems not to know what 'Christ' means: it's a process (described in Phil 2:5-11), not a person.

    Also, I do not think I am confusing 'person' with the historical Jesus: Nicea is part of the problem. It's political, as are all credal statements. They have little to do with theology and a lot to do with power games. They are emperors' chess games. Creeds form a lethal part of the flattening process; they were divisive when they were created; they're even more destructive now—precisely, as you say, because people don't know doctrine, or where doctrine comes from (Evagrius: who prays is a theologian, and who is a theologian prays—he's talking about the mind's work with silence).

    In those days, people deliberately misunderstood and mistranslated each other (see Columba Stewart's book on the so-called Messalian heresy—I am coming more and more to think that the Athens-Jerusalem debate in many of its aspects is just this sort of deliberate misunderstanding/mistranslation) so the 'orthodox' could call others 'heretics'; yet if we really understand what is going on in the New Testament and what the early church understood about the teachings of Jesus, the idea of heresy is itself heretical (OK, another paradox; paradoxes help us to liminality, which is where we need to be).

    The Trinity is rather like the Name in Hebrew: a name that is silence. It's a series of paradoxes that is destroyed when analysed, which sadly people insist on doing. It's a notion not meant to be analysed; it's rather meant to suspend the schemetizing faculty. We must learn to let the paradoxes stand, for they are descriptors, catalysts, transponders, passkeys to where we want and need to go. (See 'The Apophatic Image' Gillespie and Ross).

  8. Part 2

    Even more than the futile pursuit of 'experience' we need to move away from forms of materialization such as Cary describes. We need rather to 'fele' in the sense of the Cloud-author, which is the opposite of what modern people think of feeling: we need to reach toward the unseen 'event horizon' where we can no longer conceptualize, analyse, even 'love' according to our own lights.

    These depths are polyvalent and perceive directly, they have nearly infinite capacity; the linear self-conscious mind, by contrast, is two-dimensional and virtual, and has a very limited capacity: it tends to being a squirrel cage, a closed system. It is this squirrel cage of self-consciousness from which we need salvation.

    What we make it all so exotic; we have such fixed ideas about it all, most of which comes from the very dead end of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, not to mention Cartesianism, Freudianism, positivism and general trendiness, not to mention bandwagons. It is rather ordinary life lived from a continually transfigured perspective irrupting from the depths, the animating energy arising not from our devotional self-consciousness, however laudable that may be, but rather from the love we are given in the depths of the part of us which we cannot directly access but to which we can open and which is beyond anything we can ask or imagine.

    We need to change the focus of activity from 'I' to 'Thou', from 'what does it feel like to me' to forgetting about ourselves by opening wide to what we are being offered out of sight (this is real faith).

    As Jesus says to the disciples in John 14 (paraphrase of the Greek): "You can behold, but the system [he means the temple system, but his statement applies to any system, including systematic theology and doctrine] cannot behold, and because it cannot behold, it cannot receive the spirit of truth.

    We need words, but they must always, always be tentative, provisional, and continually accountable to the silence, which will transfigure them.

  9. @Maggie: I don't think you are actually disagreeing with Cary as much as you think. I have been listening to his lectures from the Teaching Company on the history of Christian theology, and the one that I just listened to is on the incomprehensibility of God as described (or not described) by Dionysius and Augustine. Nor do I think that the creed is nothing but a political move. It is, as our bishop of Chicago put it in a sermon he preached at our church, a love song. We sing the creed in our liturgy. It is an expression of love to say, "We believe in God who created us, who became man because he loves us, and who is present with us in his Spirit." Yes, of course, God is always beyond human language, but God has also revealed Godself to us through the Incarnation. Are you saying that you do not believe in the Incarnation? Do you NOT believe that God became man and dwelt among us?


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