According to Ken Wilber, there are two types of faith.
One is narrative in nature. It explains who did what, where, when, with whom, what that means, and it often includes unverifiable explanations about cosmology and origins. This type of faith is heavily reliant on scripture.
The other type of faith is experiential in nature. It has several faces, but, as the description implies, it relies heavily on experience and can often be verified through practice. Properly presented, the experiential approach plots out a path for the spiritual aspirant to follow.
All of the world’s religions include both types although Eastern paths have traditionally focused more on experifaith while Western paths have placed an emphasis on storyfaith.
Both types are valid and both include positive features and potential pitfalls.
Positives and Pitfalls of Storyfaith
Storyfaith provides the believer with instant identity—an important psychological element. The believer instantly knows his or her place in the world. A story not only provides identity but also access to a community and a code to live by, both of which are important in a chaotic and lonely world. That is the upside.
The potential pitfall related to storyfaith, however, is well known. It is fundamentalism, an absolute belief in the infallibility of the word as written.
In most cases, a story or scripture is written over a certain time period. Once committed to paper, however, the story quickly solidifies and rarely, if ever, does a scripture-based faith include methods of updating the story, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In fact, doubting one part of the story, as it was originally written, is often equivalent to doubting the whole story and can become grounds for excommunication.
This insistence on not doubting under any circumstances puts many people in a bind, especially in the information age, and anti-doubting becomes doubly troubling when you consider that M. Scott Peck made the case in his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled that doubting opens the door to a more mature faith and should therefore be encouraged at the right time, not the other way around (see recent article).
Positives and Pitfalls of Experifaith
Experifaith is distinctly different from storyfaith. It does not provide answers to life’s big questions. Rather, it proposes a path of discovery through practice, where a person can come to his or her own conclusions. As such, it has more in common with the modern scientific method than storyfaith does, and when practiced properly, experifaith is mostly verifiable within a community of practitioners.
The two major pitfalls related to experifaith are confusion and hallucination.
Because experifaith relies so heavily on experience, one needs either a practice manual (scripture) or a community of practitioners to orchestrate with in order to stave off confusion and counteract hallucinations. Peer review is of utmost importance, because if spiritual practices are not producing the same or similar outcomes for all practitioners, then they are typically not authentic. As such, we can safely say that not all experiences labeled as spiritual are of the same quality and, without proper guidance, there is a good chance for one to get lost.
The Two Types Should Compliment Each Other
In an ideal world, both experifaith and storyfaith could provide spiritual aspirants of all faiths with guidance. Storyfaith would preserve tradition and teach morals through parables and examples. Experifaith would provide the blueprint for a personal path to follow.
In the context of chocolate, storyfaith is a lecture about chocolate—including information about origins and fables about positive attributes—while experifaith is the literal act of eating the chocolate.
Nothing Can Substitute Experience
I have felt drawn to experifaith my entire life, especially the meditative aspects of Eastern origins, and the prayerful and moral aspects of Christian origin.
Yet, I have repeatedly found that experifaith is severely underserved in Western religion.
We, in the West, do a fine job on the storyfaith front, but too often fail to offer guidance on the experiential path, which is sad, because, from what I have learned, many people crave experience and when they don’t find the tools to practice experifaith within their own tradition, they are forced to look elsewhere, as the growing number of people who label themselves as spiritual-but-nonreligious shows.
When all is said and done, I believe that experifaith is the more essential of the two.
You can read brochure after brochure about traveling the world, you can even become an expert about a certain area of the world without ever traveling there, but nothing compares to actually going on the trip yourself.
Nothing can substitute direct experience.
Author & Interfaith Minister
Read Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion, to see how experience is tied into your religion or spiritual path.
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