Most of us know that there are forms of madness*, which cause the senses to feel, see, or hear things that appear to be religious phenomena. While I believe that mental disabilities and mental hyper-activities may cause some of these occurrences, I also believe there are legitimate spiritual phenomena, and that these phenomena are more common than much of Western civilization acknowledges.
Yet, I also believe that many otherwise sane people are experiencing things they believe are spiritual phenomena, and are not. These are intuitions, and sensations of "hearing" the voice of God, which are incorrect, and the reasons for these experiences can be many. Two broad and overly sweeping categories are listed here:
Individual thinking, bias and chemical responses
Some years ago I wrote a a short series of articles I entitled "Is it Adrenaline or is it God?" Our excitement over our own creativity, future plans, and personal preferences have the potential for giving us positive physical and emotional feelings which can be mistaken for the move of the Spirit of God. Similarly, negative responses rising from fears, strong dislike, or something as benign as personal preference creates measurable responses, and Christians have the propensity for taking these feelings (both physical and emotional) as evidence of an interaction with the Spirit of God.
During the First "Great Awakening" of religious revival in America (1734 - c. 1750) Jonathan Edwards who is credited for initiating the revival wrote a treatise on the subject of Religious Affections in which he outlined the nature of spiritual experiences and religious emotional states. Part 2 of the book highlights at length that religious affections in and of themselves are not a sign for good or for bad concerning the validity, the holiness, or the interaction of God in the process of spiritual experiences.
So it was, that long before the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements Christian leaders were concerned about the capacity for individuals to experience emotional states they believed were the evidence of God, and for these conditions to be either personally or perhaps even devilishly initiated.
This kind of deception, whether personally achieved by self satisfying biases or by demonic subtlety may be either minor and inconsequential to communal faith and peace, or deleterious and robust in its effects.
This is obviously a category of human experience highly subject to bouts of "madness." Having seen the news with tragic stories of people moved by voices in their heads, and/or confidence of God's will being behind their actions, society at large often wholly rejects all expressions of divine experience. Yet as Jonathan Edwards reminded us almost 300 years ago, religious affections do not give us evidence of the truth or the goodness of an experience.
The simple point is this: Individuals do mistake personal preference for spiritual phenomena. Yet, this fact does not negate all spiritual experiences.
Group think and bias
Based upon the same assumptions I hold (that God is able and willing to speak to humanity, and is actively doing so today), combined with the Biblical injunction that every word should be accepted at the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians are regularly verifying each other's spiritual experiences.
For years I have heard pastors talk about a coming great religious revival. People I know have set dates for this great revival, which was supposed to begin in Fill-in-the-blank-ville and eventually spread to fill the whole earth. Those dates have come and gone with greater frequency than dates set for the Rapture, or a daily change of underwear.
Strangely, those who challenged the dates were treated with disdain as though their lack of faith might somehow hinder God's will. Yet, when the dates have come and gone, no one held the leaders who declared these dates to any accountability. The same leaders have gone on to declare other dates, and the same people who followed their false declarations followed them into new and exciting promises of glory.
Jeremiah dealt with this same problem. He was a prophet of gloom, bearing sad tidings of coming trouble. He lived among people who relished hearing words of promise as we all tend to do. It appears that he was one of only a few declaring the words of impending war and trouble. The prophets around him declared good news and victory for Israel. (see Jeremiah 14)
Jeremiah's day was an example of group think driving the experience of the supernatural. False prophets had visions and dreams, and declared those experiences to be the voice of God.
Today, Christians follow leaders who pack together and agree with one another. They listen to the same teachings, and follow people with whom they agree the most. The leaders gather in similar groups of like minded thinkers. Some of them hold high-powered meetings, and others gather in special conclaves to discuss their theology. These gatherings carry some of the same dynamics of adrenaline surging excitement that comes with personal bias - only now it appears verified by a large group of people.
Is it any surprise that Christians have often had similar spiritual phenomena, come to similar conclusions, and then go on to set dates and make predictions which turn out to be false?
People who agree with one another, and are afraid to challenge the veracity of spiritual experiences are not good gauges of that which is true and that which is false. Their common hopes, their common fears, their common biases lead to a common group think, and common group satisfying validations of perceived spiritual phenomena.
The verification of 2 or 3 witnesses is meant to cover witnesses to a crime, or an issue before court, or accusations against an elder in the church. It is not meant to be an automatic verification of prophecy or any other spiritual phenomena. To allow it to become the high water benchmark of the validity of spiritual experience is to place followers into the precarious position of feeling compelled to jump on the bandwagon and shout, "Amen!" Once this occurs, unscrupulous individuals step forward to generate excitement, influence, and often money among those who faithfully, and sometimes stupidly are stumbling towards glory in search of a glimmer of hope.
All the while church groups appear to walk in lock-step validating the words of their leaders who declare they have experienced God in supernatural ways, and the world looks on in disbelief. Unfortunately, this is more common than we might imagine. Yet on the hopeful note: such false examples of group think driving and validating spiritual phenomena does not invalidate the possibility that God is still speaking today and that true spiritual phenomena are occurring. I am convinced they are occurring, but I am not convinced that we are capable interpreters of these experiences.
* as a fan (but to some degree an amateur critic) of Michel Foucault's book, The History of Madness I am using this rather outdated sounding and politically incorrect term purposely, but not derogatorily. I am not confident that all mental disabilities and mental hyper-activity fall under the medical model, which is eagerly attempting, and perhaps has fully succeeded in co-opting all forms of "madness" or "insanity" into categories of "mental illness."