A Vacuum of Validity

Have you heard the latest slander? Do you dare know the shame?

Few admit this scandal, but in the postmodern—or whatever-we-will-call-it—world, the church has lost the tools of its trade. Why? Because the world no longer accepts the proofs of our truth. Nonbelievers no longer suffer the evidence of our doctrines. Even more scandalous, "Absolute truth is an illusion and one interpretation is purportedly as good as any other."1

In short, our proof—our evidence—our interpretation have been discredited.

What could be worse? What calamities could threaten the church more? What issues could deform its future further? Somehow, the church must meet this historic challenge with far more convincing certainties. And—contrary to opinion—we have those certainties. Even in a postmodern world, valid signs and tests of truth remain. They simply differ from the ones we have used.

. . . or misused.

Sensing this void of believability, many apologists turn to the "experience" of faith for their foundation. But the "experience" of faith is not always the "test" of faith. Yes, we experience "events" of truth, but we must follow with the disciplined examination of those events. Yes, meaningful "encounters" come first, but we must later explain those encounters. And, yes, we love "signs" of significance, but we must then test those signs.

Most of us fail, however, to recognize even the signs. So that is where we begin:

"We’ve Been There"

Life pursues the significance of life. We play, work, study, and battle, for example, in order to experience life’s significance. And this experience counts, for us, as the evidence of truth. It fulfills what great thinkers mean by truth and what great believers justify as truth.

In short, all of us consider personal experience a convincing expression, a dependable index, a valid indication of something important. Indeed, no doctrinal "truth" can take the place of experiencing that truth. Otherwise, how would we know it’s true? Faith doesn’t simply duplicate someone else’s faith. Each of us must have an "original copy."

So when lived experience discloses the event character of truth—when something significant indicates the essential meaning of life—when converging evidence reveals the deeper implication of reality, we know that we "have been there, entered in, (and) experienced firsthand in an unforgettable way."2

This is no mere bloodless "truth," though. This is not a proposition or principle. We don’t stand aside as an audience of bystanders or spectators. God doesn’t reach us impersonally from somewhere in outer space. We witness, instead, a particular message to a particular person at a particular moment.

It is a direct experience at any and every level of perception. It arrives as we feel most intensely alive. And, though we see only portions of Truth, we do see.

Pretenders at a Masquerade Party

Unfortunately, what we "see" often misleads us. Counterfeit "signs" often move deceptively close to the real. Not everything "positive," for example, ends up being positive. We need only recall that self-indulgence seldom promises authentic spiritual "events." And we need only remember that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."3

Adding to the confusion, not everything "negative" ends up being negative. "The smell of doom," for example, may actually hide "the sweet fragrance of truth."4 Truth, after all, offends us when we’re living a lie. When something challenges our self-deceptions, we smell the "odor" of an imagined "enemy." But we were the stench all along.

Continuing this masquerade, many believe if some experience is crazy enough, senseless enough, "It must be God." So they feed on anything unreal or surreal, wild or otherworldly. Any weirdness becomes a sure "sign" of the Holy Spirit. But often, these deformed realities only signify sick souls and demonic debris.

These "believers" mistake the irrational for the trans-rational.

We could excuse those who pursue only the trans-rational—those who pursue, for example, the miraculous "gifts of the spirit" or the "charismata." Unfortunately, many of these believers crave spiritual gifts for the sake of spiritual "kicks." And, they often leave their experiences "untested, undiscerned, and ungrounded."5

The postmodern world brings further deceit to these deceptions. Increasingly, believers assume that all truth is "relative"—that spiritual "signs" depend on whatever feels comfortable—that a "move of God" is whatever fits their perspective of the situation.

So trying to recognize Truth is like trying to recognize your friends and avoid your enemies at a masquerade party. That’s the reason Jesus warns, "Be careful that no one misleads you."6

"The possibility of error is a necessary element of any belief."7

Intense Recognition

To recognize "friends"—to discern authentic signs of Truth—we must distinguish between Spirit and "flesh"—revelation and subjectivity—godly experiences and worldly experiences. Of course, this requires wisdom as well as a will. But if we believe the "Word became flesh," then we must also believe that any sign can be evaluated by criteria that transcend that sign.

Of course, a sign does not begin with borrowed faith, but with God’s action in our lives. It is a first-hand awareness—unmediated and unfiltered by anything and anyone. It is a pristine knowing of which our knowing knows nothing. It is a primary force that births—then interprets—then shatters human reason.

Over and over.

Both the churched and the unchurched speak of these lived experiences, realized moments, heightened states of personal feelings. Frequently, they report sympathetic responses to a "deep knowing," an "inner logic," or a "foreshadowed understanding." Often, they describe profound intuitions of a "special awareness," an "intense recognition," a "deep remembering."

Contrary to opinions, these moments are neither objective nor subjective. Rather than "cognitions," for example, they are "recognitions." Instead of "outward inventions," they are "inward gestations." Yet finally, we lack adequate words, so we attribute all these experiences to the "heart."

In the "heart," we may refer to a "quickening," a "resonance," or a "supersensitivity" to some disclosure. We may speak of the "surprise," the "spontaneity," or the "intrusion" of the "Other." And, we may report the "immediacy," the "intimacy," or the "visceral" shock of a luminous moment.

However we describe it, the experience packs a wallop.

"As in water face answers to and reflects face, so the heart of man to man."8

The Author of the World

Scripture calls this "the Spirit of Truth" which "lives with you constantly"—"guide(s) you into all the Truth"—and "gives men understanding."9 It is a lived experience that belongs to all. It is a shared meaning that pushes beyond mere opinion.

After all, God "planted eternity in men’s hearts and minds."10 So the true and the beautiful follow patterns that were woven into all our bodies and brains. Yes, we differ enormously, but we share life with an enormous range of shared truths. Yes, we reflect diverse cultures, but we also reveal the same mosaic of consciousness.

Let’s face it, embodied experiences are universal, so their corresponding truths are also universal.

Scripture echos, "I will pour out my Spirit upon all mankind,"11 so we are all "without excuse."12 Of course, we know this outpouring by the witness of historic communities. We know it by the witness of living communities. And we know it by the witness of our own lives.

The very historicity of human experience has been our beacon for centuries.

"The Spirit is the author of the world"13

A "Not-Us"

What, then, is the witness of that experience? What are the specific instances that suggest "signs of Truth"? Notice the following phenomena. They are neither inclusive nor required, but they bring reflection and wonder. They are not the essential "tests" of Truth, but they evoke the emerging "signs" of Truth.

To begin. . . .

All of us have known a "not us"—something we encounter beyond our subjectivity, beyond our categories and concepts, beyond the inventions of our minds. It’s no accident that Hebrew "holiness" meant something beyond the ordinary, something "set apart." And today, it’s no surprise that "spiritual" beauty still opens to something beyond beauty itself.

That something is a "not us." It is sheer "Otherness."

Nor is it our power. A great dancer, for example, knows a power other than muscular power. And the great pianist Artur Rubinstein knew a distinct thing—"a tangible energy reaching out into the audience."14

Again, that something is a "not us." It is a vital "Presence."

It’s like a fire that inflames itself. In other words, it is just there! It has its own "isness" or "ownness." Or, it is like an "everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades."15 We may discover it, but then we frankly admit it existed before being discovered.

And often it jumps ahead of us, like a leaping spark that ignites the mind before the mind knows it has been ignited. In other words, it puts things in our path, it "ambushes" us. It is, in short, the spontaneous intrusion of the unknown:

What a story does is sneak up behind you and whisper something in your ear. And when you turn around to see what it is, it kicks you in the butt and runs and hides behind a bush.16

The Ultimate Sign?

Obviously, we can’t manipulate a sign like the story above. It remains autonomous even as we attempt to interpret it, for it refuses any interpretation but its own. In other words, it is self-authenticating. It has its own way of being. We don’t interpret it as much as it interprets us. We don’t create it as much as it creates us.

Paradoxically, signs bring both fascination and fear, desire and dread, an impelling and a repelling—all at once. More important, they demand a response. Worldly wisdom seldom asks you what it means, but signs of Truth force this question.

They demand a dialogue.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that signs of Truth bring the totally new—unique visions never known—shifts in perspective never guessed—prophetic revelations never figured out—and redescriptions of the world never proclaimed.

Nor should it surprise us that signs of Truth suggest another power, an outside force, an external dynamic. This power proves itself especially in our frailty and vulnerability. And often, its massive blow leaves us changed. No wonder Paul claimed, "The kingdom of God consists of and is based on not talk but power."17

Artists frequently report creative forces not dependent on the artist. Thomas Wolfe admitted, "I cannot really say the book was written. It was something that took hold of me . . . everything was swept and borne along as by a great river. And I was borne along with it." And Pierre Monteux confessed, "If we do our way properly, music will make its way, not ours."

Yet, this power is more than the music. We ecstatically participate with something both "nearer and farther" than the music itself—something far more encompassing.18 A sign, in other words, transcends its own medium. And that transcendence may be the ultimate signal of Truth.

Being in Touch

If transcendence is the ultimate signal of Truth, then embodied emotion is the initial sign of Truth. Though refused by the elite leaders of passing modernity, we increasingly speak of "bodily wisdom"—the felt meanings of our emotions, feelings and senses.

Feeling, after all, is life itself. Reality is personal—it is felt. And we regard these experiences as dependable signs of meaning.

Contrary to opinion, even "respectable thinking"—"pure" science and "objective" scholarship—involves experience, specifically the experience of the body. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the mind is inherently embodied, that even abstract concepts are based on the emotions of metaphors. Indeed, all thoughts "arise from and are shaped by the body."19

So experience and reality are the same. "Our embodiment shapes our reasoning and . . . forms the basis for what we take to be true . . . (even in) stable scientific knowledge." Indeed, we consider people ill when they get "out of touch" with reality.20 Of course, this implies that "being in touch" requires something that "touches" us.

Without feelings, nothing matters.

Visceral Truth

It makes sense, then, to say truth is also embodied. The fact that emotions, feelings and senses play a central role in all aspects of meaning promises new answers in how we search for Truth. This new cause becomes especially true when confronted with qualities that can’t be quantified.

Beauty, as example.

We "feel" the truth in beauty. Our sense of beauty—and its "felt-truth"—has always been an emotional language. When Hans Urs von Balthasar said, "Overwhelming beauty points beyond itself," he meant that our aesthetic feelings become a bridge to something beyond both beauty and us.21 And when Dostoevsky said, "Beauty will save the world," he meant that our sense of beauty will save the world.22

The sense of beauty, then, remains the medium of our faith. The biblical David desired—more than anything else!—"to behold and gaze upon the beauty (the sweet attractiveness and the delightful loveliness) of the Lord."23 And even our salvation, Jonathan Edwards insisted, requires a sense of beauty.24

So this "sense"—the emotions and feelings of our body—can’t be separated from our love of God. They are intricately related. That’s why early church leaders reached their listeners on a visceral level. Paul’s writings, for example, reveal emotions that were "pleading, strident, exasperated, affectionate, urgent, reflective, passionate, and at times impatient."25 In fact, Paul and other biblical writers can’t be fully understood without the sympathetic response of our bodies.

And centuries later, the revelation of God—according to William James—comes more from "immediate feeling, than after . . . proposition and judgment."26 And the grasp of the transcendent—according to C. S. Lewis—comes only from "physical sensations."27

In psychoanalysis, emotions become the basis for ‘suspicions.’ But in religious language, emotions become the basis for belief.28

Fraudulent Feelings

These emotions, however, are not a bogus bliss or a surrogate spirituality. They are not, for example, the passions of self-interest, self-centeredness, self-preservation, or self-pleasure. And, they are not the natural instincts of animal-like longings.

Take "love," as example. Signs of Truth are not the love that "scratches your back if you scratch mine." Nor are these signs a prideful pretense of the faked virtue flaunted among church "pillars" who proclaim "my pew, my church, my doctrine. . . ."

In the same way, signs of Truth are not knee-jerk responses to the environment. Godly sensitivities, for example, are not blown this way and that way by any and every situation. Neither will we find them in the fleeting and fickle moods of random causes . . .

. . . or in the manipulations of others.

And—contrary to the postmodern bunch—prophetic emotions are not subjective. They are not limited, in other words, to sentimental romanticism, fanciful passions, or fantasized poetry. They are not mere emotions for the sake of emotion.

For those pure "thinkers," though, who claim to "rise above" such base instincts, let them also know that these emotions are not the "objective" feelings of philosophy or psychology. They are not the mere "ideas" of our experiences.

And, finally, let those who worship beauty and art through "cultured," "decapitated" heads know that this passion is not a "refined," cosmetic passion—a counterfeit beauty that parades only itself. Such zealots confuse the oyster for the pearl. They mistake the medium for the message.

These fraudulent feelings, or "signs," also prove spiritually fraudulent. They may look good—even altruistic—in religious settings. But the warm embrace of religion does not change their turned-in soulishness. And the secure approval of church hierarchy does not remove their darkness.

Transcended Messengers

How can we know, then? How can we tell godly emotions from self-serving emotions?

To begin, Scripture asserts, "Spirit gives birth to spirit."29 We confirm this truth when our emotions rejoice solely in what the Spirit likes and scorn only what the Spirit rejects. Beyond our natural bias, we would call these moods, "spiritual emotions."

They differ from "natural emotions."

Spiritual emotions transgress many of the "common sense" rules of our common senses. For example, spiritual emotions "see" as well as feel, while natural emotions only feel without seeing. In other words, spiritual emotion yields light with its heat, revelation with its warmth, and insight with its inspiration.

It is where meaning is "felt." It is a "felt-knowing."

With this "embodied" Truth, "not only do we have "infinite passion," we also have "passion for the infinite."30 Not only do we hear music with our ear, we also sense its meaning with an "inner" ear. Not only do we see beauty with our eye, we also sense its meaning with an "inner" eye. Not only do we respond—animal like—to our surface senses, we also cross to other senses—comparing a sound to a smell, a sight to a touch. . . .

Notice. These events are evoked or felt aesthetically—much the way we experience beauty.

So, with spiritual emotion, the senses of the world transcend the world. Truth is realized through them, but not in them. The "messenger" is known by our senses, but meaning is known by the message. In short, spiritual emotion is a vicarious, "stand-in" emotion—a "not-us" emotion.

In other words, it mediates between "here" and "not here"—us and "not-us"—our sensual life and spiritual life. It enables a dialogue, or communion, where Spirit witnesses to spirit. It reflects the "merger of the finite with the Infinite for a transient but ecstatic period."31

Spiritual emotions, then, run counter to the world. Indeed, they are considered even dangerous to the world. But when we transcend the world, what better signs. . . .

Our visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory extensions are . . . searching prostheses . . . endowed with intentions and powers of decision.32

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 278-280.

2. John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001) p. 99, 100.

3. II Corinthians 11:14, AMP.

4. II Corinthians 2:15, 16; AMP

5. Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) p. 188.

6. Matthew 24:4, AMP.

7. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958) p 315.

8. Proverbs 27:19, AMP.

9. John 14:17, 16:13; Job 32:8; AMP.

10. Ecclesiastes 3:11, AMP.

11. Acts 2:17, AMP (my italics).

12. Romans 1:19, 20; AMP.

13. Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 77.

14. Roy Kennedy, "Music Therapy," http://www.music.sc.edu/ea/keyboard/PPF/5.1/5.1.PPFgp.html

15. Plato, in the Symposium, quoted in Philip Koch, Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter (Chicago: Open Court, 1994) p. 129.

16. Brian McLaren, quoted in "Evangelism Among Postmodern Youth" http://www.sonlifeafrica.com/worship/worship9.htm

17. I Corinthians 4:20 AMP.

18. Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass," http://www.bartleby.com/142/94.html

19. Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 64, 65, 72.

20. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999) pp 78, 95, 96, 128.

21. Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoted in Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, l992) p. 161.

22. Nancy Forest-Flier, "Beauty Will Save the World," http://bit.ly/ceJph9

23. Psalm 27:4, AMP.

24. Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989) p. 147.

25. Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) p.196, 197.

26. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Modern Library, 1936) p. 397.

27. C. S. Lewis, quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p 137.

28. Hahn, p. 429.

29. John 3:6, NIV.

30. Paul Tillich, http://www.jstor.org/pss/1200689

31. Georgia Harkness, quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p. 142.

32. Derrick de Kerckhove, The Skin of Culture (Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995) p. 150.

Future Church Administrator