Virtue and Experience

Virtue and Experience April 21, 2022

Experience is a great teacher. This quality has come under scrutiny among many conservative Wesleyans. I do not understand these attacks. They are attempts to wrest authority away from a person or a group of people’s means of understanding truth. Ben Witherington makes the mistake of equating experience with emotion or “feelings” in his blogpost “Jonathan Edwards and The Ongoing Crisis in the Methodist Church.” While I agree too many people make that mistake, I believe the critics are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What Is Experience?            

John Wesley’s fellow alum of Christ Church, John Locke, provided the world with a thoughtful consideration of experience as a check on pure reason. Lockean experience, understood scientifically, is a means of learning by observation of phenomena and testing (or experiment which is derived from the same word as experience). But the scientific understanding is only a part of his overall theory of knowledge. Locke’s idea of the human person as a collection of experiences with children born as “blank slates” waiting for experiences is flawed. But it is not entirely wrong as Immanuel Kant demonstrates. Human knowledge stems from the application of practical judgement.

Does virtue come from experience? Both Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith (contemporaries of Wesley) argue it can. What they argue against is the belief that “good feelings” are moral guides.

Spiritual Feelings and Moral Action

Spiritual experiences are often equated with emotional experiences. A piece of music or a well-told story can produce emotions of sadness, anger, jubilation, or feelings of resolve that end as soon as the stimulus ends. Allow me to use a personal example of how bad ideas and feelings can reinforce one another.

My father, in 1961, knew about a group of white students from his high school deciding to attend the protests in Clinton, Tennessee against the desegregation of the school. Clinton High School was infamously bombed to keep the inevitable from happening. He learned at home, church, and community that the races should remain separate. It was also his senior year in High School. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army.

There my father lived, worked alongside, and was under the authority of both Black and White soldiers. Through his experience, he learned much of what he had been told was divinely ordained and morally correct was in fact neither of those things. His response was not an emotional response. His new conviction came by reason and experience. Once he left the Army his understanding of what the Bible taught us to do changed with that experience.

 Experience and the Bible

Does experience change the meaning of Scripture? No. But it does allow us to overcome bad teachings whose advocates claim a biblical basis for their ideas. Why are some traditions discarded after a time? We may decide they are contrary to a biblical principle. We may decide they are ultimately harmful.

The cherished value of religious freedom is rooted in Locke’s understanding of reason and experience. His Letter Concerning Toleration continues influencing the relationship of modern democratic governments and religious institutions. Experience becomes the antidote to religiously based authoritarianism. It is something we definitely need to remember. Call it a tradition based on reason and experience if you wish.


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