When he was young Clive Staples Lewis had three experiences that he later found difficult, almost impossible, to explain. Those experiences set him on a journey driven by his desire to find them again.
When trying to make sense of those experiences he read a book published in 1902 by the psychologist, William James titled The Varieties of Religious Experiences. In it James “tried to make sense of the complex, powerful experiences that lay at the heart of the lives of so many religious thinkers.”
In that book James identifies four characteristic features of such experiences (C.S. Lewis: A Life):
1. Such experiences are “ineffable.” They are “too great and extreme to be expressed or described by words.
2. They deliver “insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”
3. These experiences are “transient” meaning “they cannot be sustained for long.”
4. James suggests those who have had such experiences “feel as if they have been grasped and held by a superior power.”
For C.S. Lewis, these four characteristics describe an experience he calls “joy.”
I’ve had such an experience once. I was about fourteen at a pentecostal altar on a Youth night. I’ve struggled to understand what I experienced and have given it different names over the years. I’ve tried to speak of that experience, as I am now, but words are inadequate. Like Lewis, I was left “longing for a longing that had just ceased.” I have had a few other similar experiences over the years, but none so intense and they are very few and very far apart.
I’m no longer immersed in that culture and have embraced a more intellectual and ecumenical side of the faith that values and gleans from non-pious traditions. The church I now attend does not apply corporate laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer time or altar calls. I am greatly blessed and thankful for where I am today and couldn’t go back even if given the choice. But in some sense I feel a part of me has been robbed. As I pour out my intellectual energy in acknowledging and working towards a corporate faith that expresses itself through the love of Christ to the poor, the downtrodden, the hurting. As I give of myself to the Great Tradition of the faith by seeking to understand those foreign bits like art, creeds and liturgies.
What I need to remind myself is that there is an element to this faith that is personal, penetrating, supernatural and experiential.
At the end of the day, when all of the intellectual debates have ended and when everyone is left somewhat exhausted, determined and hardened in the position they were in before the debate. After all of the books written by apologists have been read, closed and placed back on the shelf. There comes a time to stop thinking and give your intellectual a rest. A time comes to be still, and just know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. And even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8 ISV)