Stained glass window in the recently deconsecrated church in Millers FlatAbout a month after the night in Lower Hutt I was baptised in the New Life Centre in Christchurch by Pastor Peter Morrow. It was a Wednesday night, and there were about a dozen of us, all young men. The women were baptised on a different night because of the effect of water on 70s clothing and the need for decency. Together, we constituted that month's crop of converts, and we all shared a common experience. All of us had known what it was to be born again, which I now see was a conglomerate of a number of things all experienced in close proximity.
- There was a sense of release and freedom from guilt and anxiety
- There was an affirmation of us as individuals and, for me, the cessation of crippling lack of self esteem. The Lord of the universe loved, astonishingly, even me!
- There was, for most of us, one overwhelming experience of being immersed in the presence of God; of having senses and boundaries temporarily suspended
- There was, most importantly, an ongoing sense of the presence of another; of one wiser and kinder who never, ever quite departed.
The narrative and the experience were inextricably linked. The narrative explained this overwhelming thing that had happened to me, and the experience proved the veracity of the narrative. I and my contemporaries read the Bible flabbergasted for it told our story. The Acts of the Apostles and the epistles described people who were undergoing revelation and renewal exactly like ours. So, it was necessary to protect the integrity of the narrative, for without it my experience might soon seem to be illusory and all the wonderful benefits I had garnered might disappear into a cloud of wishful thinking.
This confluence of experience and narrative explains why, of all the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries it is Charles Darwin who has most threatened experiential Christians. If evolution is true, the whole thread of the story begins to unravel, for there is no creation of perfect ancestors but rather a slow ascent from smaller and more limited ones. There is no catastrophic fall, but rather a gradual rising. There is no state of original sin, but rather the slow dawning of ever more exquisite levels of awareness. And with no fall and no original sin there is no place for the whole elaborate mechanism of substitutionary atonement. So it is Darwin who became the nemesis, rather than Einstein or Heisenberg or any of the dozen others who might be argued to pose a greater threat to a traditional Christian worldview.
Despite the best efforts of the church, the narrative, as it was delivered to me, did become unsustainable, how could it be otherwise? Again, I can remember a time; an evening of struggle with the story of the flood and the conviction that even if it meant ditching the whole precious cargo of my new found Christian faith, I simply could not pretend to believe anything so preposterous. I gave up that particular struggle and found not the loss of my experience of God but rather a deepening. For most of my contemporaries in the faith, their Christian experience was brief, remembered now in late middle age as a pleasant though foolish adolescent episode. I was luckier. Over the years the narrative unfolded into deeper and more satisfying levels of complexity and subtlety I learned that a story can be profoundly true even if it didn't happen. So my framework in the Christian faith became bounded by liturgy and office and I was able to maintain the core of the original experience within newer narratives which, even as I told them, I recognised as provisional. Oddly, in letting the old old story go, it has come back to me. I'd tell you what I meant by that but it's late and the day has been long. I'm in my caravan in Invercargill and it's time to find a sleeping bag