experience teaches us to be radically undogmatic

experience teaches us to be radically undogmatic November 3, 2014

LouthAs Gadamer puts it, “The truth of experience always contains an orientation towards new experiences.  The perfection of this experience, the perfect form of what we call ‘experienced,’ does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else.

“Rather the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many Gadamerexperiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them is particularly equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them.

“The dialectic of experience has its own fulfillment not in definitive knowledge, but in that openness to experience which is encouraged by experience itself.”

This growth in experience is not primarily an increase in knowledge of this or that situation, but rather an escape from what had deceived us and held us captive.

It is learning by suffering, suffering the process of undeception, which is usually painful.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology,  p. 37 (quoting Hans-Georg Gadamer,  Truth and Method, p. 319)

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  • Lise

    Experience is such a vital part of growth and yet so often, experiential learning is somehow viewed as a bastard child and not a legitimate form of epistemology. Thank you for posting this. Our experiences can liberate us from dogma and increase empathy as well, i.e. “Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in her shoes.”

    In experiential therapy, we deeply value how engagement in an art form or process can catalyze psychological and behavioral transformation. Many of us have great intellectual insights, yet insight alone doesn’t always result in change or relief. Yet something that activates an actual experience can yield great openness.

    I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.
    ~ Confucius, 450 BC

    Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I will learn.
    ~ Benjamin Franklin, 1750

    There is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.
    ~ John Dewey, 1938

  • Paul Feyerabend’s The Tyranny of Science would go perfectly with this post. Feyerabend, a famous philosopher of science, observed the many dogmas in science and how they tend to be especially held by the theoreticians. Indeed, the theoreticians allegedly know more than the experimentalists, because they have comprehensive visions of reality. Feyerabend points out that ancient religious people claimed the same, after having come up with cosmogenies that explain everything. Perhaps we need to respect theoreticians a bit less. With that will come a weakening in dogma.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    The Amazon blurb says:

    “This book examines the influence of the Enlightenment on theology,
    arguing that its legacy did not profoundly affect the importance of
    tradition; that the ways of older theology hold a surprising relevance;
    and that the unity between theology and spirituality is once again

    From Pete’s posting I had no clue that Louth was ultimately advocating a return to the religious traditions of the early Church Fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy over against Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Interesting.

    Jesus has, as I’ve experienced him through scripture, been one of the most undogmatic persons imaginable. Nevertheless his come and see and follow me approach ideally reconstructs his followers in ways that structure their experience not simply as steps along the way to leaving prior experience behind, but in order to eternally constrain their future experiences. Louth also has something like this in mind, but mostly as mediated by the Church Fathers.

    I’m sure I’d enjoy reading __Discerning the Mystery__ as a worthwhile critique of the myths of scientific as well as Western Christian theological objectivity. If it does advocate, as reported by some reviewers, a return to an allegorical theological method, I wouldn’t be a very enthusiastic reader.

  • Tim

    Sounds about right to me. Thanks for this, Pete.

  • Patrick Dyle

    Was just thinking of this yesterday in a study at church. We were studying Rom 12:2 and talking about discerning the will of God through tests (ESV). Given that Paul is shifting from theological thought to practical, on-the-ground living in chapter 12, it really registered with that me that it is only through being a living sacrifice and the experience that way of life brings that we start to grasp the will of God.

  • Derek

    Speaking as one who has been in the valley of despair for years and years due to chronically ill health, I think suffering has revealed to me what I truly believe. I found that I had a lot of doubt and even hatred for God deep down inside me – suffering revealed this to me and I realized dogma was just a little head game for me.
    Yet I think of Paul the Apostle and much he suffered and lost, yet was still quite dogmatic in his beliefs. Maybe he truly grasped the love of Christ, knew that nothing could compare, and knew that nothing could separate him from that love, and his dogma was an outworking of that reality.

    • Daniel Fisher

      Peter has an good discussion in his most recent book in discussing the way Ecclesiastes, Job, etc., give permission to the faithful to seriously wrestle with God, in contrast with the more structured blessings and curses elsewhere – and how that this really is OK to ask the hard questions and wrestle. As if those authors instinctively understood that the “simplistic” dogmas that people latch onto just don’t work magically (obey God and all will go well), but the invitation is there throughout the Bible (especially in Ecclesiastes, Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and others) to wrestle deeply with God and ask him why.

      I agree with you that this doesn’t need to entail simply discounting or discarding truth or dogma, but the Bible gives plenty of permission to seriously wrestle – and to share our genuine hurts, disappointments, and the like. In fact, that permission to seriously wrestle then may well become part of the larger “dogma,” perhaps?

  • MarcusBorg

    Dear Peter and Responders.

    Love your quotation from Gadamer. It rings true to my life (as do similar affirmations by William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Rahner, and many more). For me, the experience of the sacred, glory, radiance, God, has had a far more powerful effect than religious dogma/doctrine, Christian or non-Christian (including secular doctrine/dogma). Keep up your good work.