Little Red Riding Hood (henceforth called Hood) was walking through the forest to her grandmother’s home. Her mother strictly told her to remain on the path so that she would not fall into danger. Unbeknownst to her, a wolf was stalking, planning to eat her. He approached her on the road, conversed with her, and discovered where she was going. He then departed, ran ahead of her, arrived at her grandmother’s house, and ate Hood’s grandmother. Hoping to deceive Hood, he put on her grandmother’s clothing, got into bed and waited for her to arrive. When Hood arrived, she was stricken by her “grandmother’s” features, but was apparently unaware of the deception. As Hood commented on each feature, she got closer and closer so she could get a better look. Unfortunately, she got close enough and the wolf devoured her as well. Moral of the story: Don’t talk to strangers.
Alright, I know there are many versions of this fairy tale, and some with happier endings, but this is the version I remember (in a nutshell) from my childhood. This is primo bedtime story material if you want you kids to crawl into your bed at about 2:00 AM and wet the bed around 3:00 AM. But never mind that. It’s the moral of the story that bugs me. All we get from that is don’t talk to strangers?
What went wrong with Hood? It’s the same thing that is going wrong with us. We are so dependent on experiences to define reality that we’re losing sight of what is actually happening. The wolf was able to so accurately recreate Hood’s experience of grandma, that she couldn’t perceive the difference until it was too late.
This is the danger of experiences. They are so subjective, so customized and tailored to our expectations that we allow them to define reality. And nowhere is this more detrimental than in our Christian faith.
Currently there is a video circulating on Facebook from a guy named Joshua Feuerstein where he offers an impassioned defense of creationism. What is bothersome about his defense isn’t his actual belief, but his reasoning for his belief. He wraps up his address to “Mr. Atheist” by saying that his belief in creationism is founded on his felt experience of God and on his own observations and an incorrect breakdown of what the word universe actually means. Let’s break this down.
[Before I do this, please note that I am not accusing Feuerstein of being a wolf. I don’t know enough about him to level that serious of a charge. This is only a critique of the reasons he gave for his belief in creationism because a lot of people base faith on the same reasons.]
Felt experience is maybe the absolute worst criteria for one’s reason for faith in anything. Even the Bible warns against depending on one’s feelings. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) If the heart cannot be trusted, then felt experience cannot be a standard for belief. Need proof? Watch this video about how professing Christians in Texas are converting to Islam. Witness the tears of joy that some of them shed over their newfound faith. Listen to how they say that their experience in Christianity wasn’t enough for them. Felt experience is a horrible rationale for faith, but just like Hood, many are believing the wolf because he’s crafted an experience that is convincing.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Observations can also be horrible. At a crime scene, how often do you get two eyewitness accounts that are demonstrably different? The same event is described, same end result, but the details in between don’t exactly match, and in some cases are not similar at all. How many husbands and wives interrupt each other’s stories because one isn’t telling it right? Same story, same ending, but the observations in the middle are very different.
When a Christian looks at a sunset, he interprets that sunset through his faith and calls it beautiful. When an atheist looks at that same sunset, he interprets it through his understanding and calls it beautiful. Both interpretations are valid: one sees it as a glorious display of God’s glory, the other sees an aesthetically pleasing display of the natural processes of our universe. Neither of those observations is incorrect and they both end at beautiful. Unless you were one of the 12 Apostles, observation is a weak reasoning for faith because the vast majority of people see the world as they want to see it. Hood expected her grandmother, so even when things seemed amiss, her expectations, combined with the experience crafted by the wolf, allowed her to see what she wanted to see.
Observation is a weak reasoning for faith because the vast majority of people see the world as they want to see it.
Finally, for many people who profess Christianity, they have professed faith, not because the truths of Scripture have led them, but because they took a trusted someone’s word for it, or worse, a complete stranger’s word for it. Mr. Feuerstein made a critical error at the end of his defense. His etymology of the word universe was incorrect. He said that uni means one, which is correct, but then he said verse means a spoken statement. In English this is correct, but if you break down uni to the Latin, then you must also break down verse to the Latin in order to get the actual meaning, which really means to turn. Therefore the Latin meaning is something to the tune of everything in one turn or everything turned by one (see here).
I wonder how many people, though, will run with Feuerstein’s definition simply because he said it with such authority or because he’s a trusted person? Hood believed the wolf because grandma was a trusted authority in her life. The wolf essentially delivered a trifecta to deceive Hood. He crafted an experience that altered her observations that led Hood to believe the lie because he was imitating a trusted authority.
Are there legitimate experiences in the Christian faith? Absolutely. In fact, the experience of God through the Son, Jesus Christ, is a pillar of stability in the Christian life. True Christian experience, though, is not rooted in the subjective feelings of our hearts, but instead have their foundations in the objective truths of Scripture. Only when Scripture defines our experiences will our emotions and feelings be gradually transformed into something more reliable, more Christ-like.
True Christian experience, though, is not rooted in the subjective feelings of our hearts, but instead have their foundations in the objective truths of Scripture.
Are there legitimate observations? The more our observations are informed through true Christian experience, the more they will line up with reality. In other words, when we observe something that grieves the heart of God, it should grieve us as well. That is how you know your observations are true and pure. Are you seeing things as God sees them, or are you seeing them the way you want to see them? As our Christian experience transforms our emotions and feelings, we will gain increasing clarity on how God observes things and feel like he feels about them with increasing passion.
Are there legitimate trustworthy authorities? God has gifted certain ones among us to be leaders. As long as we maintain the perspective that God has appointed some of us, not as ultimate authorities, but as under-shepherds who follow the Great Shepherd, Jesus our Lord, then we can trust them as long as they are following and trusting Jesus. However, any under-shepherd worth his calling will always tell you to look to Christ as your ultimate authority and compare every word that comes from his mouth to God’s Word.
I know this was long, but the problem is deep. Are we going to be deceived by the wolf like Hood, or are we going to be aware and test the spirits to see if they are of God? (1 John 4:1) God desperately wants us to reason, test, discern, consider…
All of these are things we need to sharpen with steadfast discipline. These are not in contrast to faith. Faith is a gift that is given to us. Reason is how we defend the faith that God has gifted to us (1 Peter 3:15). Discernment is how we sense, through knowledge of the truth, that deception is in front of us (Hebrews 5:14). Testing is how we, through healthy questioning, discern the truth from the lie (1 John 4:1). We consider or think about the ones who have gone before us in the faith, we hear their stories, are encouraged by their belief, and are motivated to live with similar determination (Hebrews 11).
Start today taking seriously the charge of Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In doing so, you won’t be a wolf’s lunch any time soon because you will be ready, sharpened through the discipline of reason, empowered by the Holy Spirit with a renewed mind, full of the knowledge of Christ!