A sense of the heart

Religious experiences lead Christians to diverse, even disparate, actions in the world.

By Bill Leonard

In his Treatise on Religious Affections (1746), Jonathan Edwards wrote: “We come necessarily to this conclusion, concerning that wherein spiritual understanding consists; viz. that it consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion that depends upon, and flows from such a sense.”

Edwards sought to distinguish true religious experience from false in response to controversies over revival “enthusiasms,” emotional outbursts that descended upon 18th century individuals and churches during what became known as the Great Awakening. In his introduction to the Yale Press edition, John E. Smith observed that although Edwards wrote extensively on the revivals and their resulting religious phenomena, Religious Affections was “his most acute and detailed treatment of the central task of defining the soul’s relation to God.”

Edwards was one of the first analysts of Christian religious experience in America, offering what Smith called a “brilliant, at times pathetic, defense of ‘affectionate’ religion,” moments that linked heart and mind, reason and emotion, body and spirit in an encounter with the Divine.

Varieties of religious experience span both Scripture and Christian history, often expressed in phenomena more diverse, extensive and bizarre than the great Puritan pastor/theologian could have imagined. For him, “affections,” those public and private outbreaks of experiential religion, went beyond “mere speculative knowledge” to become a “sense of the heart, wherein the mind doesn’t only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels.” In America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards, Robert Jenson suggests that Edwards understood this sense of the heart to be the “one thing” that separates human beings from “brute creatures.”

In Edwards’ words, “we are always present with ourselves, and have an immediate consciousness of our own actions.” Religion, he insisted, was “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God.” Those who discovered genuine spiritual enlightenment did “not merely rationally believe that God is glorious,” but possessed “a sense of the gloriousness of God” in their hearts. Bad religion involved any religious endeavor “from which the hearts’ sense is missing.”

Edwards’ spiritual explorations introduce my new book, “A Sense of the Heart:” A History of Christian Religious Experience in the U.S., to be published by Abingdon Press in November. Those studies have taken me through Revivalistic conversionism, Transcendentalist romanticism, Shaker utopianism, Swedenborgian spiritualism, Catholic and Quaker mysticism, Holiness/Pentecostal sanctification, Womanist liberation, and Postmodern spirituality. Practitioner-devotees of such varied, sometimes theologically contradictory, movements seem united in their quest for a direct encounter with the Other, the Sacred, or, for Christians, God as revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Through it all, I remain fascinated by the way in which religious experiences often lead Christians to diverse, even disparate, actions in the world. On one hand we claim a unifying “sense of the heart,” bound together in a shared relationship with God. As John Wesley observed, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” But not always. Sometimes our religious experiences carry us in opposite, principled directions. Why? Often because of what Jonathan Edwards called “cases of conscience” that divide as readily as they unite.

In the mystery and messiness of faith, religious experience and individual conscience coincide and collide. Recent public events illustrate the divisions. In late June the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 majority ruled that Hobby Lobby, a Christian-based “closely-held corporation,” would not be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage for certain types of birth control that the owners believe constitute an abortion. Owner-executive Steve Green insisted, “We believe that the principles that are taught scripturally are what we should operate our lives by and it naturally flows over into the business.” It was a landmark decision linking religious freedom to corporate policy.

That same week, Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., announced that it would open its doors and its ministers for weddings of gay and lesbian couples. Senior Pastor Joe Phelps told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “All of God's children are equal. We have to obey our conscience.” This occurred just as a Kentucky court rejected the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, an event not determinative of the church’s action.

Conscience born of “a sense of the heart” shaped two parallel spiritualities toward two divided theological/ethical outlooks. Two parallel court cases produced two divergent verdicts. If both corporation and congregation share a sense of the heart’s transforming experience of grace, how could their consciences seem so contradictory? Perhaps because the faith that leads to grace may be simple, but is seldom easy. Faith and life confront us with issues of conscience that demand a gospel response. And we act — hoping, risking, gambling — that our actions are rightful with or without a victory in the courts of this world.

Our encounter with Christ, this “sense of the heart,” rests perpetually on clarity and uncertainty, the courage to take a stand on issues that may or may not, should or should not, prevail. Time, and grace, will tell.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.