Theology and Human Experience

Theology and Human Experience July 30, 2014

There’s a kind of theology that effectively denies human experience. You may think and feel that X or Y is true, X and Y may well fit your experience, but the Bible or some theological principle tells us otherwise. You are self-deluded about your experience. What else would you expect, given that you’re a finite being who is a rebellious sinner to boot?

This tool needs to be in the workbelt of any theology. After all, we are finite and rebels and we might well be self-deluded. We might not feel guilt when we are in fact guilty, and vice versa. Our moral perceptions, which we think fit with the pattern of human experience, might be deeply distorted. Revelation corrects us; it’s designed to instills in us a reality principle that we do our best to suppress. It instills a healthy skepticism about what we think we experience.

But the denial of human experience can become a pervasive theme of theology, even a structural or organizing principle. Nature-supernature schemes sometimes function this way: X or Y might seem to be quite true, but they are true only in the natural sphere. Supernature operates by a quite different logic. The effect can be that the supernatural never touches home in our experience, to say nothing of grace invading and upending our experience. Ironically, the effect of nature-supernature schemes can be to give human experience authority to determine what counts as natural and what as supernatural.

Consistency with experience has to be among the touchstones of theological truth. It’s not the sole or final touchstone, but it’s a touchstone. And if a theological claim violates common human experiences, then we should pause and think again. If, for instance, a doctrine of divine sovereignty denies our daily experience of freedom and choice, something has gone wrong. Back to the blackboard; back, ultimately, to the Bible. 

In some cases, we’ll find that our assessment of our own experience has been faulty and we need to be more deeply transformed by the Spirit. But there will also be cases when a failure to meet the existential test has forced us to think more deeply and accurately about the import of the gospel.

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