Posted by: Dan | April 27, 2009

Clinging to Tradition or Encountering God-as-Event

Sometimes I wonder if those who barricade themselves within certain interpretations of ‘Traditional’ or ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative Evangelical’ Christianity are actually doing so because they are desperate to believe in God… but have never actually tangibly experienced God-as-Event (in Badiou’s sense of the word ‘Event’).  When ‘Tradition’ is all that you have of God, then it is no wonder that challenges to ‘Tradition’ (or how that ‘Tradition’ is narrated and interpreted by this contingent) appear to be so threatening.

I sometimes wonder this, not because I think that these so-called ‘orthodox’ Christians are more closed to God than the rest of us, but because I spent 7 summers working with teens and young adults who came from Conservative Evangelical families.  During those 7 summers, I discovered that, although Conservative Evangelical kids are taught to speak of having a ‘personal relationship with God’ almost all of them have never actually encountered God in any meaningful, transformative or concrete way.  I remember when I first awakened to the observation that I was actually an oddity for believing I had actually had such experiences and this so surprised me that my first thought was: “Well, why the heck are you guys Christians then??”

Not surprisingly, it turned out that many of these people only identified as Christians because their parents had trained them to do so.  Consequently, when they moved on to independence and to other environments, their Christian faith (sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually) disappeared.

However, others could not face the trauma of walking away from their faith and so, in the absence of a lived encounter with God, went on to immerse themselves in apologetics, and the history and doctrines of various (in this case, Reformed or Evangelical) Christian denominations.

Several of these people have ended up within the walls of the Christian Academy.  Consequently, it does not surprise me that Christian academics often end up speaking condescendingly of those who talk of having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus or, to provide another example, those who speak of the notion of exploring ‘God as a lover’.  Thus, those who have never experienced God-as-Event end up building theological systems that downplay the significance of one’s personal encounter with God (i.e. one’s personal experiences are not to be trusted or treated as any sort of authority), and end up overemphasizing the history of Christian doctrine (although it should be noted that this narration of history is almost always fraught with value judgments and acts of exclusion in order to end up confirming previously established views).

However, those who have encountered God-as-Event cannot view this (fictional!) Tradition with the same urgency or authority.  Granted, the various streams of Christianity, and the multiple traditions that trace their way throughout the last two thousand years, are an important witness to the activity of the Word of God in history… but one has now been freed from the need to desperately cling to one particular ideological interpretation of that history — in fact, one can even more critically engage with these things because, after the Event, one’s faith in God will remain regardless of what one discovers in the traditions or in Christianity’s many orthodoxies.

Thankfully, this at least was the experience of a minority of the people with whom I worked for those 7 summers.  Awakening to the realization that God could be known as Event, these few were lucky enough to look for that experience, and to be found by it.  Would that we were all so fortunate!

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Responses

  1. This is an excellent working out of the subject.

    Have you read Maslow’s “Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences”? It discusses this idea very well.

  2. I wonder if God as and Event is second to Tradition. Since most who preach tradition, use the morality argument. If you can’t believe in God, then view the Church as just teaching children good morals. For without the Church, society is in danger of collapsing.

  3. Dear Dan,

    Very good post. I lived on a very conservative Christian community for four years in British Columbia, and found that it was difficult to actually have a true “personal relationship with God” by their standards, because the two ideas clashed a great deal. I had to learn to be real and not be concerned with “what it should look like”.

    Many of my friends who were raised there, have since walked away from God in dissapointment for lack of personal encounter or “Event”. I find this to be very sad and avoidable if we would be willing to allow the Lord to show us who He really is even when it means we have to do away with a tradition we once thought so sacred.

  4. Wow! This post hit me right between the eyes this morning. I’m currently serving as a pastor in this sort of environment, and I’m not sure exactly how to proceed forward personally. I’ve listened and listened to people within my context speak of “moments with God” and deep “personal relationships” with Jesus, but they often seem fake and shallow. I myself have pursued, with reckless abandon, this experience, and I still haven’t yet encountered it. Maybe it’s because I’m pursuing it through the means I’ve inherited from my tradition…

    Thank you for giving voice to this today.

  5. Dan,

    I know at least one Christian academic who objects to certain “Jesus is my best friend” language *have* experienced God as event. It is simply that the pop personal relationship language doesn’t succeed in making sense of those experiences.

    Other than that minor point, I am in agreement. I am reminded of Symeon the New Theologian. On a related note, I might recommend you look at William Abraham’s “Canon and Criterion” and “Canonical Theism.” His basic move is to separate the ontological reality of God’s enlivening work through canonical elements from the tendency to make those canonical elements function as epistemically normative. This makes space for critical engagement with the tradition while acknowledging that the whole impetus for engagement comes from the fact that God has acted for us through that tradition.

    David

  6. Perhaps there are “God events” that occur in peoples lives, but because of the need for them to “fit’ with particular frameworks of theological understanding (re: your last couple of posts?) they may be thrown out or discarded if they dont fit with that particular tradition? Or just go undeeded?

  7. That should be heeded, not deeded:)

  8. There may be something to your genealogy of conservative Christian academics, but I’m confused by your claim that they speak condescendingly of those who have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. I suspect I just don’t know who the “several of these people” are anyway.

    Perhaps I need to understand to what “tangibly experienced God-as-Event” refers. Do I need a primer on Badiou, or can you describe nontechnically what it means to “experience God-as-Event?” In my simple-mindedness, I immediately think of the Eucharist. But I get the impression that this is not the sort of thing you have in mind as a “personal encounter with God.”

  9. Badiou goes out of his way to use technical terms that can have at least a vague connection to the intuitive sense of them – so you can just start by understanding an event as something radically unexpected, something that shakes everything up, because it comes from the part of the world that, while unspoken, sustains the world.

    I’m sure we’re in for decades of academic battles over whether or not religious experiences can be legitimately termed events, and Badiou doesn’t seem to care to offer a clear answer to this.

    However, one of his first books translated into English was about Paul, “the poet thinker” of the event of Christ.

  10. Hi poserorprophet, I have been enjoying reading your blog. Hope you don’t mind my comments.

    Personal experience of God (an event) and an intellectual understanding or perspective (via tradition) do seem to exist independently. As far as I know, one doesn’t need to have “solid theology” to experience God, nor does one need to experience God to follow a tradition.

    But maybe tradition is the result of many different personal experiences that agree with one another, both among contemporaries and throughout history—less an arbitrary set of precepts and ideas and more an unfurling of Reality. It is because of this that I don’t see a reason why tradition cannot be part-and-parcel with personal experience.

    I think traditions are intended to bring structure to such encounters. But I also think they exist (or should exist) to assist us, to lead us toward such encounters. They also help us discern the truth of our experiences. Personally, I have been too quick to name certain “good feelings” encounters with God, yet I later leave from them unchanged. As an evangelical in my old PAOC church, I used to sing with warmth in my heart, “I am changed in the presence of a Holy God”. Just how I was changed I never gave much thought to. I suppose it was “I no longer want to drink alcohol”, or “I am a more moral person than I used to be”. But was that change as the result of “standing in the presence of God” or by the traditions of my evangelical upbringing? My understanding of tradition (or Tradition) today is that I am changed, not by feeling good in a moment, but by God’s grace, yes, but also through the disciplines handed down to us through Tradition. These are not arbitrary rules but responses discoveries about human nature and the necessary path from here to a life filled with encounters (communion) with God.


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