Catharsis and its Alternatives

“Catharsis” is the word we use for the expression and release of a strong emotion. The catharsis of confession, for example, leads Christians to experience their repressed guilt and the relief that comes with forgiveness. For many “big E” Evangelicals, the catharsis of conversion is the most important spiritual experience of their lives. They want to tell others about it so they can have the same experience.

The unfortunate thing is that this confessional catharsis becomes the benchmark experience for white evangelicalism, and if you are trying to tell someone Good News about Jesus and they aren’t carrying a load of repressed guilt, the rhetorical strategy becomes to make them feel like crap so they can accept Jesus and then feel better.

I think lots of us progressive Christians see the problem with this. Many Christian folks have written about it. This approach leads to threats of hell and harping on favorite individual sins while ignoring systemic and corporate sins. What I think progressive Christians tend to lose sight of, though, is that this catharsis is still a legitimate spiritual experience. It may be that not everyone needs to experience salvation in the same way, but confessional catharsis is still an important part of human spiritual experience of a loving God.

Evangelicals don’t see this as abusive or cruel — they see it as loving. There are other forms of catharsis — recognizing and repenting from white privilege, for example. Leaving behind shame that others have heaped on you and accepting a God who loves you as you are. Recognizing that your implicit core belief that you have to earn your worth through work or performance is a lie (that would be me).

And catharsis is not the only kind of salvific spiritual experience. Awe, wonder, irony, mystery, humor, grief, silence — all can be responses to or part of a saving encounter with God. My hope is that a “small e” evangelical Christianity that sees the good news as GOOD and recognizes all these forms of saving encounters would emerge from this 500-year theological rummage sale*.

In saying this, I want to emphasize that Evangelical Methodists do not neglect the “experience” part of the quadrilateral at all. In fact, I think they implicitly make it MUCH more important than tradition.

(*The 500-year rummage sale is a concept Phyllis Tickle borrowed and wrote in The Great Emergence.)

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