This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.
There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.
But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.
Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.
The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.
We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.
So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.
You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.
Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.
Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).
While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.
For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”
He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.
Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.
But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.
It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.
Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.
You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.
St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”
Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.
The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.
I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.
Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.
It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.