Spiritual Experiences—Intellectual and Emotional

A warning.

Assumed audience: Orthodox Christians, but especially those of us with an intellectual bent. (And, of course, others interested in the subject from the outside!)

From my notes, jotted down in July 2020 as I was working my way through John Websters The Culture of Theology:

It strikes me that there is an interesting, and important, parallel between the intellectual work of deep and high theology and the experiential habits I engaged in as a youth in a charismatic context. When we either have a deep intellectual experience, or a deep emotional experience, but it does not produce holiness… we have not had an experience of the living God. For when we encounter the holy, transcendent, glorious God of all, if we do not find ourselves repentant of our sin and in awe before him — in a way that transforms even how we interact with others, not least in our own family — we have not encountered him truly at all.

I was struck then, and remain compelled by, the way Webster took the intellectual work of theology seriously, but never — emphatically, as he might have said! — never for the sake of intellectual stimulation. The point is always an encounter with the living God.

I grew up in a charismatic church which emphasized emotional experiences of God. I have since found my way into a much less emotive tradition, where intellectual and even academic rigor is valued more than emotions.1 The struggle in both places is the same, albeit with a different surface symptom: idolatry of the self. To focus on my emotional satiation is no worse and no better a failing than to focus on the stimulation of my mind. Should the emotions be engaged in the act of worship (through song or Scripture reading or preaching)? Yes! Should the intellect be engaged in the act of worship (through song or Scripture reading or preaching)? Yes!

But unless the engagement of my self — emotionally, intellectually, indeed physically — is oriented on the delighted, reverential worship of the triune God who has saved me, it is (to put it in what I believe to be an appropriately coarse way) simply masturbatory. It is idolatry, of course: but a form of idolatry which is in a way worse than other forms for its pretense at right worship, for taking intellectual and emotional experiences of God as grounds for self-indulgence.


  1. At least: aspirationally. Presbyterians make much of intellectual and academic rigor; whether the PCA consistently lives up to that… ↩︎