Emotion and Doubt: Experiencing the Divine at a Temple, a Cathedral and the Creation Museum

The most strange emotion I’ve ever felt in a church is something I’ve come to coin as “Spiritual Whiplash”—the feeling of being swept up in the grandeur, emotion, and beauty of a spiritual experience, and then immediately having that drained out of you by a sudden realization that the emotion was completely disconnected from reality.

The Mormon Temple

This happened to me once in Spring 2018. I was touring near the Latter Day Saint Temple while visiting with high school friends living in Utah, who were attending Brigham Young University at the time. While I was there, I had the opportunity to visit the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s weekly live performance in Salt Lake City. And the experience was overpowering. As a former choir student, I couldn’t help but let myself be completely absorbed into the beauty of this massive orchestra and choir pouring out their hearts in song, closing on the most beautiful rendition of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing I had ever heard and being left with watery eyes.

I left the concert hall energized, suddenly pondering strange thoughts like “Maybe if the Latter Day Saints can produce something this beautiful there might be something to their religion.” I followed my friends to the nearby Conference Center, the home of the bi-yearly General Conference that marks one of the most important events on the LDS calendar, and was taken to a display hall holding multiple Arnold Friberg paintings depicting the events of the Book of Mormon, and having their events explained briefly to me.

I must have looked like I had been hit by a train, because my friends sensed that I had been suddenly weirded out by their explanations and admitted that it was a lot to take in—namely the idea that Jesus Christ visited America and that Native Americans were actually the lost tribes of Israel. Internally, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I’d gone from the highest of spiritual highs to the lowest. I don’t say this to be demeaning to my LDS friends, but I was not prepared to hear what they were telling me and it was a sucker punch. I felt drained by the time I boarded the airplane home.

Spiritual Whiplash

This is the phenomenon I call spiritual whiplash, and it is admittedly quite rare. I go through periods of emotional highs and lows all the time—days where I feel completely swept up in my faith, and days where believing in God cannot feel more absurd and nonsensical. But it is rare to have these experiences right next to each other. On the rare occasion it does happen, it can deeply shake your faith.

But that innate feeling—the emotional high that comes from the presence of divinity—is something I feel deeply tempted to pursue. It can be difficult to describe that innate feeling of presence in a way that doesn’t sound insane, but most Christians can likely describe the feeling of what it was like the first time they ever entered a church and felt like they were in the presence of the divine. I’ve written about it a few times before about how the experience of the divine is a primary draw for young Christians. Many people jump denominations because they cannot feel it in an Evangelical Megachurch but suddenly find themselves swept up in the emotion while attending an Orthodox Divine Liturgy or a Latin Mass, or Pentecostal Tent Revival on occasion.

As an ecumenist and an Anglican, I find that such experiences are not singularly rooted in a single tradition, but generally speak towards a more profound spiritual experience. The Book of Matthew teaches that “for where two or three are gathered in my name,” Christ is there—and this is true equally of a small Orthodox Parish, a massive Cathedral, or a spiritually healthy Evangelical Church. Evidently, it is possible to feel it in an LDS orchestra as well.

The popular Catholic Bishop Robert Barron talks of this feeling as the experience of beauty, and says that this overpowering desire to feel beauty is an expression of the yearning for God and our desire to pursue him. C.S. Lewis describes the feeling similarly as the experience of “Joy,” not happiness so much as the feeling of being taken up and enveloped in bliss, contentment, and fulfillment. I can only describe it as the feeling of having the weight in your chest taken off you, for your eyes to be lifted up and, for the briefest moment, to feel lighter and swept up in glory.

An Episcopal Cathedral

I felt an early inkling of this very early in my spiritual life. In March 2013, I was a senior in high school from a small town in Illinois, and my choir was given the opportunity to visit New York City and perform several choral pieces at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Cathedral in North America and the fifth largest house of worship on Earth.

Walking the length of the building was something my 18-year-old brain could scarcely fully comprehend. It was a hall of new experiences, signifiers, and shibboleths I had never before conceived of. My prior experiences with Catholicism and Lutheranism were solely in low-mass settings. I’d never seen a church so large, and I was intimidated by the idea of sitting down in the wrong place, lest I commit a social faux pas. We were told that the building is so large that the reverberations of a sound last for 12 seconds, and our choir’s voices echoed among the towering halls with the Medieval Latin and French hymns we’d prepared for the occasion.

To sing in front of the altar and look out felt like standing before the world and feeling utterly small in comparison. I had never even considered the possibility in my life that Episcopalianism was a viable religion, and honestly, I wouldn’t for nearly a decade after that experience. I just knew that something powerful was happening within that building. It felt mystical and old, like coming into contact with an older and more whole way of being, one that I wasn’t ready yet to fully grasp or interrogate.

The Creation Museum

Alternatively, one of the most spiritually crippling experiences of my life came from a rather unexpected place—The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. A dear friend of mine from Ohio was kind enough to join me during the COVID pandemic for a visit to the most infamous museum in the American South. I enjoyed visiting with my friend but the spiritual feeling of being in the Creation Museum, and its sister location the Ark Encounter, brought upon a feeling of dryness and doubt I’d rarely experienced up until that point.

Admittedly, there is some latent bitterness on my part that likely played into that reception. I am a philosophical defender of intelligent design and theistic evolution. I don’t take this stance because I fail to take the Bible seriously, but because I had already come to the conclusion that my Christian brothers’ attempts to do so have served as a public embarrassment to the church and our intellectual traditions.

Since well before the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, Fundamentalist Christianity has attempted to tighten its hermeneutical grasp on the scriptures against the conclusions of modern science—openly accusing scientists of conspiring to destroy the faith by spreading heinous and knowing lies, or at least failing to trust the truth of scripture. Christians have driven the wedge between themselves and the academic world and suddenly wonder why artists and thinkers have no interest in religion anymore.

I continue to take the stance that I do not know what the truth of creation is. If God created the world in 6,000 years or 6 billion, it does not make a difference. It all speaks to his glory. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” says Psalm 19. Tradition teaches that nature is a form of revelation and I have no desire to pit the revelations of nature against the revelations of a fundamentalist reading of scripture, especially when brilliant Christians of every denomination have already reasonably defended that these questions can be philosophically resolved without declaring war over them.

Unfortunately, this stance has crippled my ability to commune with some churches, with my brief attempts to inquire into joining the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church breaking down over this philosophical question.

The problem with the Creation Museum was not that it was arguing in favor of creationism, although the fact that it was selling DVDs to the infamous Bill Nye-Ken Ham debates (which Nye famously won) left the feeling that the museum was deliberately out of touch with reality and in denial. This denial seemed to permeate every aspect of the museum’s approach to science and material reality. Everything depended on an ultra-literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis, so all logistical questions had to be passed through the lens of that radically materialist hermeneutic.

We’re shown visions of the Garden of Eden, where T-Rexes are using their razor-sharp meat-shredding teeth to shred watermelons. We’re shown scientific graphs depicting how much weight Noah’s Ark could’ve held, and explaining how dinosaur eggs and large mammals could have feasibly been preserved for the duration of the voyage. We’re told that evolution is strictly unbiblical but that every species rapidly changed immediately after they left the Ark in a process shockingly similar to evolution.

Emotions and Doubt

And my stomach turned reading these signs. I felt the feeling of a weight building in my gut and doubt seeping in as I’m reading these signs—the overriding emotion that the truth of my entire religion is dependent on these bizarre, reverse-engineered, and half-hearted pronouncements representing the truth of reality. “Is it really possible for Jesus of Nazareth to have died on the cross if I have to believe in this?” I wondered.

Admittedly, I still ask myself these questions sometimes. I’ve had intelligent and kind Christians try to sit me down and explain why a hermeneutic that assumes these events to be fully literal or non-hyperbolic is necessary, and I respect some of those arguments and my friends that make them. But I struggle to resolve the fact that I feel close to the presence of God at the altar rail and not at the Creation Museum. I can believe in a second that a first-century Rabbi rose from the dead and atoned for the sins of the entire world, but the thought that he’d bury dinosaurs in the ground to confuse his followers 2,000 years later feels too absurd.

I say all of this to say that emotion is something I spend a great deal of time grappling with as a Christian. Spiritual dryness is very common. Plenty of liturgical Christians experience dryness and struggle to grasp that feeling of presence. But I have felt the presence a handful of times in my life, often in strange or illogical places. It has never given me a clear indication of where God is drawing me, but has always just teased me with the possibility of hope and moving forward in my faith.

At the same time, I’ve also grown more skeptical of such emotions. If I’ve learned anything useful from my studies in Lutheran theology, it is a skepticism toward this kind of pseudo-charismatic approach to feelings. The tendency for new religious movements to embrace Pentecostal theology, amid that group becoming one of the fastest-growing religions on Earth, has led the Missouri Synod to take an aggressive stance against such ideas, repeatedly criticizing such movements as being theologically dangerous.

More Than a Feeling

As they say, our salvation has nothing to do with our emotional feelings toward that salvation. If we feel guilty, angry, or overwhelmed, those feelings may have nothing to do with the state of our souls. Coming to church and feeling spiritual dryness is not an indication that we are more or less saved, because our salvation is rooted in our faith alone, and if it is authentic that force is enough to transform our hearts and produce good works and the works of the spirit.

I’ve seen many intelligent Christians drawn in by such experiences and led to intellectual ideas I know to be false. I’ve met Evangelicals who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy overnight, who clearly benefited from that conversion but now openly castigate all other Christians as heretical. I’ve met Traditionalist Catholics who bravely stand in public defending the sanctity of life who turn to their Protestant brothers and then defend positions that their Baptist grandmas are in Hell for having an improper theology of the Eucharist or for failing to rely upon the Mediatrix.

Emotion is always something to be wary of as humans, but it can also be a useful tool. It can guide us to truth, but it cannot make us drink from its waters. It can guide me into a Cathedral and plant the seeds that would blossom decades later, or shock me into fleeing from an entire religion. Praying the Morning Offices from The Book of Common Prayer can leave me energized and ready for a new day, while forgetting to pray them can leave me feeling dead inside.

Indeed, I saw plenty of Nuns and Amish folks at the Creation Museum who were far more energized and enthused by their experience than I was. And I’ve met plenty of Evangelicals who don’t feel anything when they attend the liturgy. Baptists can swoon at the words of Thomas Aquinas without letting Thomism sweep them across the Tiber. An Orthodox parishioner could view Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and find it tacky compared to Byzantine art. There is a level of subjectivity to emotion that makes a difficult to parse these truths.

St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that “for now we see through a glass, darkly.” Our grasp on spiritual truth is limited, and our perceptions can equally be our friends or our enemies. Sometimes they are helpful, but we must always be wary of what our emotions are asking us to defend. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”


Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a freelance writer and was the Fall 2021 College Fix Fellow at Main Street Nashville. He has been published at Leaders Media, Geeks Under Grace, The New York Sun, The Tennessee Register, The College Fix, Law and Liberty, Angelus News, and Hollywood in Toto. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics Association.


'Emotion and Doubt: Experiencing the Divine at a Temple, a Cathedral and the Creation Museum' have 2 comments

  1. July 21, 2023 @ 11:08 am Don Warrington

    “For me, the Nye-Ham debate was a dissatisfying business. By making the debate squarely about the age of the earth, Ken Ham let Nye off of the hook about the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory. Those implications–or at least the ones that the proponents want to promote at a given time–have always been evolution’s most distasteful result. They range from Social Darwinism and Marxism in the nineteenth century to the fatalism engendered by current evolutionary biology.”

    https://vulcanhammer.org/2014/03/29/my-thoughts-on-bill-nye-the-so-called-science-guy/

    Reply

  2. July 22, 2023 @ 10:49 pm Jennifer Thompson

    I enjoyed reading your article! Thanks for being willing to share your personal experiences.

    Reply


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