St Agnes, Kennington 25 May 1997




Most of us, at a guess, will admit to having had what we would call a "religious experience" at some time or other during our lives. Perhaps we have had many such experiences or maybe just very occasionally they've happened. But none of us would probably be here this morning if we simply didn't know what the words "religious experience" meant.

When researchers ask people to fill in a questionnaire about their beliefs for, say, a newspaper survey on "Religious Attitudes" this is usually one of the questions: "Have you ever had a religious experience?" And overwhelmingly, people answer "yes".

There's no reason for supposing they aren't telling the truth. Some of them are even embarrassed to admit it. Indeed elsewhere in the questionnaire the same people say that they never go to Church, have no religious beliefs and doubt whether God exists at all.

In other words, they are making a clear-cut distinction in their minds between experiencing something and believing in it.

They are right to do so. If you consider any experience in life, say "happiness" for example: you will realise that "being happy" is something quite separate from the things which bring that happiness about. In fact, if anyone who is experiencing happiness stops for a moment to ask himself his reasons for feeling happy the chances are that the feeling of happiness will stop, or at least be interrupted, precisely at that moment. You just can't experience something and think about it at the same time.

The Christian who understands that this is so may well go on to ask himself the question "Is there any point in going beyond the feeling or experience and asking what it is all about? Surely it's the experience that matters isn't it; doesn't 'what lies behind it', questions about belief or doctrine or theology pale into insignificance alongside our experience of the real thing?"

The person who asks this question has a point. After all, it's not necessary to know about car engines to enjoy driving one; still less does one need to be a nutrition expert to enjoy a good meal. Surely, then, it's possible to be a Christian who experiences the Presence of God or his Providence without giving any thought to the Nature of the God in whom he believes. Isn't the Trinity, for example, a matter for the experts and not for the ordinary man in the pew?

Like many such questions in life, the answer cannot be a straightforward yes or not.

Let us look at another example of "experiencing" versus "understanding" which demonstrates rather neatly why "yes" or "no" is not the whole story.

Let's suppose that you're on holiday with a friend in Devon and the two of you have gone to visit a particular beauty spot, maybe somewhere on Dartmoor or Exmoor.

You are not disappointed. When you reach your destination a scene of the most wonderful natural beauty greets your eyes. Such an experience can be quite emotionally overwhelming.

But then whilst you are still enjoying the experience, your companion opens up his ordnance survey map and, after a minute or two's study puts his finger on a particular spot on the map and says "We must be right here"

You may well be annoyed with your friend for interrupting your enjoyment of the beautiful scenery to do something as prosaic as looking at a map, the more so if you have never learnt to map-read. Those two experiences, enjoying the scenery and referring what you can see to what is on the map are totally different in kind.

And yet each of you is, in his own way, "experiencing the real thing". In fact, the probability is that without the map and the ability of at least one of you to read it properly you'd neither of you have reached the site and had the experience in the first instance.

So although the map and the experience are two quite different things, the map, and the knowledge of how to use it, may well be essential prerequisites to the experience.

But there's another consideration. When you've left the beauty spot and want to get back home and the daylight is beginning to face and the roads are bounded by such high hedges that you can't see any scenery over them at all, then a map really comes into its own, doesn't it?

Here's a map of the area we've been talking about. It's not a terribly up-to-date map. It was published in 1932. Some things which the map shows have changed since then. Railways have been closed, roads have been built, post offices have shut down.

But the vast majority of things, like the hills, the lakes, the rivers and the paths have remained the same with the result that a knowledge of map reading plus a little intelligent guesswork will enable you to find your way home.

Now Christian doctrine, whether it is about the Trinity, or the Church or the Last Judgement or anything else, is like a map and learning about it is similar to learning to map-read. As a map sets out in a convenient form a representation of what you can see or where roads go to, so doctrine sets out in a form that we can grasp the truth which lies behind our "religious experiences. Doctrine tells us about the being whom we are worshipping with our lips and in our lives. It tells us that he is a Trinity of Persons, Father, Son and Spirit, and that to worship him is to know him as such.

But God is not the doctrine, any more than the scenery is the map. Of course it's far more important to know God and to love him than it is to know all about him. Yet having said that the likelihood of both knowing and loving him well will be vastly increased if we have taken the trouble, so to say, to consult the maps of scripture and doctrine: for these maps consist of the cumulative experience of those who know him better than we do, and what they are telling us is what he has revealed to us about himself.

For anything that we know about God we know because he has chosen to reveal it to us. So if scripture and doctrine are the maps of God's nature we need to learn a bit of map-reading if we are to benefit from them. Learning about map-reading requires a bit of instruction and practice.

It's no use hoping that a map will tell you anything useful if you are holding it upside down, for instance; or if you don't know which way you are facing. Nor is it any use supposing that the man-made points of reference on the map are as unchangeable as God himself. The world-view which we see today from our vantage point may be slightly different from what we would have seen sixty years ago when the map was drawn up. It's not that God has changed but we and our fellow men have. Where once on the map there was a railway, now there is a road; where once medical science was powerless to cure certain diseases we have discovered antibiotics and laser surgery. All these changes need to be taken into account as we read the map. But the countryside itself has changed little if at all during that time.

God's revelation of himself to us as a Trinity of Persons hasn't changed either. The bible bears witness to it; the first 400 years of the Church's life were largely occupied with drawing up the map to which we can now refer.

So why do we bother to study Christian doctrine or map-reading?

Well like the example of Devon that we considered earlier, there are two good reasons for learning how to do it.

Firstly we shall enormously increase our chances of finding what we're looking for, namely God himself, if we look up the map before we set out on our journey, and refer to it as we go along to check our progress.

Secondly, when the light is fading and the visibility is poor the chances of our getting home safe and sound at our journey's end are immeasurably increased if we read the map which God in his goodness has provided us.

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