Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part One

Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part One November 28, 2014

Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part One


I have long thought that experience does and should play a role in Christian theology, but I have also long known that’s controversial, especially among conservative Christian theologians, and that it’s difficult to define. That is, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what role experience plays and how much of a role it should play in theological reflection and especially doctrinal formulation.

I think pure objectivity is a myth; no such thing exists in human experience or thought. Intersubjectivity is the most we can hope for. That is, there is no “view from nowhere”; perspective always intrudes in interpretation and reflection. However, I do not believe we are locked into our perspectives such that they cannot be informed by dialogue with people of other perspectives.

One reason pure objectivity is a myth is the inevitable role played by experience in interpretation and reflection. It’s always easier to see that role in other people’s interpretations and reflections than in one’s own. But I simply scoff at anyone who claims pure objectivity outside the analytical realm (i.e., matters of definition where there is an authoritative source). Even there, however, I suspect some perspective intrudes (i.e., in the defining of words and concepts by writers of dictionaries and encyclopedias).

As a historical theologian I have very little difficulty pointing out how experience has always and everywhere played some role in theological reflection—both critique and construction. For example, I would have great trouble taking seriously anyone who claimed that Martin Luther formulated his soteriology of justification by grace through faith alone in a purely objective, “ivory tower,” manner. Almost all Luther scholars point to his “tower experience” and other experiences (such as his trip to Rome) as playing a contributing role in his later formulations such as “simul justus et peccator.” In other words, Luther did not suddenly discover one day through pure, objective reflection on Scripture…. That does nothing to detract from the truth of what he discovered (as many fear such an admission will inevitably do). It still must be tested by Scripture (according to classical Protestant theology). But that it originated partly out of his experiences is incontrovertible. What role did his experiences play in it? Well, if nothing else, they focused his attention on the meaning of Scripture in a new way and set him on a journey to discover the true meaning of Scripture.

I believe (as a historical theologian) this can be shown about all theological “breakthroughs.” This is no new idea. Baptist theologian James McClendon wrote Theology as Biography in 1974 and there demonstrated it through case studies.

This idea, however, creates great fear in many conservative, confessional theologians—especially conservative evangelicals (using “evangelical” in a broad way). To them it suggests subjectivism in theology. They have come to depend on the myth of objectivity—after conversion if not before—such that they imagine there are purely objective tools for carrying out theology’s critical and constructive tasks. There must be, they assume, or else we are left with theological anarchy and no way of sorting out and through the competing truth claims made by self-identified Christians. Lacking a physical magisterium such as the Catholic hierarchy and pope at its head evangelicalism needs, so they claim, objective principles and methods of determining theological truth and separating it from error.

The historical-theological guru, as it were, of this approach to theology, at least for many American conservative evangelicals, is Charles Hodge, the nineteenth century exemplar of Reformed Protestant Orthodoxy. The question is whether his allegedly purely objective approach to theology worked even for him or whether his own experience played a role in his theological reflections. I think that has been demonstrated by his biographers. Even Hodge did not have a “view from nowhere” or think God’s thoughts after him. And I would even go so far as to claim that his attempt to exclude all experience from theological reflection (after regeneration) led to his Systematic Theology (if not his other writings) being exceptionally dry and spiritually infertile.

Let me define (again, from my own perspective but hopefully not a private one) “experience” as I mean it here—in reflecting on its role in theology. There are several types of experience that I believe must be taken into consideration. First, there is common, universal human experience. Second, there is cultural experience. Third, there is community experience. Fourth, there is personal, individual experience.

Common, universal human experience includes, at least from a religious perspective (!), the “sensus divinitatis” or what Friedrich Schleiermacher called “God-consciousness.” (I do not think it necessarily includes all that Schleiermacher thought it includes such as “the feeling of utter dependence.” Here I am not accepting any particular interpretation of this common, universal human “religious experience” as necessarily valid.) Rudolf Otto called it “numinous experience.” Paul Tillich called it “ultimate concern.” C. S. Lewis described it as “the law of nature” and a sense of obligation. Whatever exactly it contains, many scholars have identified it as a universal human experience if only a sense of something as sacred.

Cultural experience is the mythos of a particular culture, the guiding implicit beliefs about reality that govern (not necessarily determine) how people of a particular culture view and interpret reality (nature, history, social relations, ethics, etc.). I’m American so I’ll use the American mythos to illustrate this. Most Americans, admitting many exceptions, operate in life with the myth of American exceptionalism (however precisely interpreted). This is how they interpret world news, for example: “If only the rest of the world were American the world would be so much better.” This is also how they interpret wealth and poverty: “If only everyone pulled themselves up by their bootstraps everyone would be prosperous.” I could go on. These ideas, rooted in a distinctly (not necessarily uniquely) American mythos, rooted in American experience, permeate much American culture and influence how Americans view things.

Community experience, in the way I mean it here, is “smaller scale” than cultural experience (as I described it above). By “communal experience” I mean the traditions, “habits of the heart,” “ways of living” that tend to govern a particular group within a culture. Usually one has to be part of a group for some length of time or grow up in it to “get it”—with “it” meaning communal experience. I would call this communal experience a group’s ethos. Again, since I grew up Pentecostal, I’ll “pick on” Pentecostalism as a movement to illustrate this “community experience.” Most Pentecostals (at least when I was born into the movement and growing up in it in the 1950s through the 1970s) view their movement and themselves as “the” “Spirit-filled” branch of Christianity and revel in testimonies of supernatural experiences of the Spirit. Criticism, even disdain, from outsiders was interpreted as confirmation of our being special because “true Christianity” was and always will be a “remnant” called out from the “world” (with “world” standing in for “fallen humanity” with all its evil allures and sinful experiences). Pentecostals believed that God still talks to people even though Scripture is uniquely inspired and authoritative for discernment. “God told me…” was extremely common among Pentecostals and less so among other Christians. It was rarely followed by some new doctrine, but was usually the introduction to a testimony about personal guidance from God or occasionally a “word of wisdom” or “word of knowledge” about how the community (in this case church) or other individual should decide and act. Occasionally, however, it introduced a new perspective on truth. In any case, classical Pentecostals normally (even normatively at their best) submitted such public claims to discernment by the elders, the men and women especially recognized as spiritually mature and attuned. Their discernment involved biblical examination, consideration of tradition, and prayer. The worldview and theology of any person who grew up in classical Pentecostalism or converted into it and remained for a period of time is influenced by this communal experience of “full gospel Christianity.”

The meaning of personal, individual experience is self-evident. Or at least more so than the first three types of experience. Here is inward experience not determined by social experience and not as general as common, universal human experience. It is most evident when an individual breaks out of the molds of common, universal human experience, cultural experience, and communal experience and has a flash of insight, an “Aha!” moment, that cannot be explained (at least to his or her satisfaction) by cultural conditioning or common humanity. Some psychologists and sociologists will simply deny the reality of such experiences and attempt to explain all of them as simply the breaking through to consciousness of unconscious impulses contributed by social conditioning of some kind. I do not believe, however, that such explanations can exhaustively explain the great personal, individual experiences, expressed in unique insights and actions that go against the stream. The source of such personal, individual experiences will always be debated and I believe that debate will always be influenced by cultural, community and other personal, individual experiences.

My argument here, and in the post (or posts) to follow is that theology has always been influenced by human experiences of all four types and should not attempt to exclude them from all theological criticism and construction. The operative and key term here, for me, is “all.”

What is the main alternative to my argument? Going back to what I said earlier, it is the myth of pure objectivity—that there exists some method of determining theological truth, doctrine, that is free from all experience. In its most extreme form this alternative believes it is possible, even if no one has yet achieved it, to “do Christian theology” without being a Christian at all. In other words, assuming the Bible, Christian tradition (“the Great Tradition”) and reason (logic) to be the guiding norms of Christian theology, a person needs no commitment to any religious faith, no personal spirituality, to engage in sound Christian theological critique and construction. In this view, for example, the Bible may be viewed simply as a “not yet systematized system of doctrines” and doctrinal truth simply “mined” from it and put in good, logical order. No faith or spirituality needed; only a working mind needed. Some other (mostly conservative) theologians will want to add that Christian tradition (e.g., the consensus of the church fathers) is required for sound Christian theological critique and construction. But in both cases, the working assumption is that experience—especially cultural, communal and personal, individual, can be set aside, overcome, such that the result is a purely objective account of “Christian truth.”

Admittedly, few Christian theologians put it quite that way—in such stark terms. However, that reluctance is, I believe, evidence of the truth of what I am going to claim—that experience is inevitable and even helpful in Christian theology.

Now, immediately, I recognize that some who disagree with me will point out that if what I say is true there exists an element of subjectivity, and therefore relativity, in my own claims (because they, like all, are influenced by experience). I admit that. But I think the difference between us is that they are more worried about that than I am. I have no interest in imposing my belief about this (or most things) on others. My only interest is in explaining and perhaps persuading others to see things my way. I worry that their (some conservative evangelicals’ committed to pure objectivity in truth discovery) interest is in enforcing their interpretations, including their methodology, on others by excluding those who disagree from “the club.” That is, they want to make their dream of pure objectivity in theology, “doctrine settled once and for all and not at all open to revisioning because objectively grounded and proven,” totalizing on all within their sphere of influence (which usually means the “evangelical movement” or “evangelical academy”). An example is those conservative theologians who equate “good theology” with foundationalist epistemology and eschew, even condemn, non-foundationalist or postfoundationalist approaches to theology as “subevangelical” (at best).


Note: If you choose to respond to this post, please keep in mind that it is only part one and therefore incomplete. Be sure to stick to the rules of the road for this blog: 1) Be fair (don’t misrepresent) and civil, 2) keep your response relatively brief (don’t write an essay), 3) do not misuse my blog to promote your own agenda, 4) promote conversation, avoid conversation stoppers (clichés, sermons, mere assertions, etc.).

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