In the 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen diagnosed not only the intellectual and theological drift of his day but of that which would continue to develop over the next 90 years. He wrote,
The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (What is Faith?, p.28)
The drift away from theology, i.e. the events of the redemptive-historical drama in the Bible and their meaning (doctrine), created a vacuum that has been gradually filled with other things. And one of the main results has been the rise of both the relational and the experiential as pillars of many expressions of American Christianity.
The Aquarius age of the sixties ushered in the full-blown relational era. All you need is love, the Beatles sang. I remember as a young Christian in the early 1970’s hearing the oft prescribed formula for gospel acceptance by the world… they will know you’re my disciples by your love for one another. It was no coincidence that Body-life became all the rage. In fact, a popular book came out at that time with that very title by Ray Stedman, who summed up his model for the church this way,
The church is a living organism. In the physical body, the hand moves when the brain says to. So too the members of Jesus’ spiritual body takes direction from Him as our Head. Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church. He equips his people to love one another, and to serve in unity his kingdom. This is Body Life.
The relational-conduit led to experiential reality. In one church that I was a part of for a number of years in the seventies, sharing one’s “experience of Christ” in the worship meeting was the very cutting edge of body life. What was needed was not “dead doctrine,” but life supplied from the members of the body of Christ (grace and heavenly blessing given via the horizontal-relational). And of course this accelerated the already established trend of democratizing truth by elevating the greatest common denominator among believers, a person’s subjective experience. Everyone had one! Everyone could share it. Truth filtered through my lens, my experience to the church.
To paraphrase the words of Traffic’s hit song from that same time period, a new old fashioned experiential goo was replacing the Word-based proclamation of Christ, i.e his death and resurrection for unworthy sinners in both Word and Sacrament (doctrine from above). To be built up in Christ now had more to do with being touched by someone’s testimony of their experience, accompanied by their own unique interpretation of the Spirit’s work in their life. And of course, it was incumbent upon those listening to be appropriately and relationally supportive with “amens” and “praise the Lords.” Interestingly, that’s not all too different from what one finds in any number of different support groups. The means of grace in Word and Sacrament by which sinner/saint is comforted and strengthened in faith was gradually replaced with shared testimonies of subjective experiences and mystical worship moments to attain a corporate sense of “God’s Spirit.”
Now certainly there’s nothing wrong at all with a corporate sense of God’s Spirit. But one needs to look critically at what was happening. Scriptural doctrine fell off the radar screen of that church as an ancient and unnecessary means of direction. No matter how true, doctrine was simply “dead-head knowledge,” an impediment to the Spirit’s working. Faith no longer was fed by hearing, understanding, and receiving the gospel truths. What the church needed was Life which came through the direct operation of the Spirit found in one’s personal/mystical experience of God.
Faith, no longer pointed to nor rooted in the redemptive-historical objectivity of the gospel, was redirected toward the ever-elusive subjective. So, once again Machen’s words from the twenties presciently described what came about,
But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?… Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)
The identifying mark of much of today’s evangelical church is the subjective/experiential elevated above the objective/declarative of the Word. And it is this modern means of grace which is deemed spiritually authentic. Speak of doctrine or objective biblical truth and eyes begin roll in boredom. Share your experience of a God-moment and heaven has come to earth.