Experience and Theology

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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What is the role of experience in Christian theology?

Experience has become a buzz word within many churches today.  Advertisements for churches sometimes invite potential members to come to their “worship experience.”  Within our contemporary setting, experience has taken a bent toward subjective, psychological phenomena.  This individualism leans toward a spiritualism that tends to divorce itself from the communal aspect that is strongly attested in Scripture.  It opens itself up to the possibility of relativism, which asserts that Truth is really in the eye of the beholder.  This type of experience is usually viewed as subversive to what Scripture asserts about Truth.

Experience, in contemporary society, has been given a position of authority based on the individual.  In other words, the validity of a situation lies in an individual’s emotional, psychological response to an event.  Although Wesley did not explicitly discount personal experience, it had greater implications than the individual.  Moreover, individual experience can be problematic, as is the case with interpreting Scripture, interpreting the meaning of that experience.  If it is simply a subjective experience, then it tends to be open to any interpretation placed upon it by that individual.  This can be especially problematic where interpretation of an experience differs.  Ultimately, subjective experience cannot stand alone as its own authority.

In reading experience as John Wesley understood it, it is important to understand that experience in the 1800’s had a radically different meaning.  Due to his empirical commitments, Wesley viewed experience in terms similar to our word “experiment.”  In other words, experience was not simply a subjective arena, but ultimately should be re-producible for others.  Therefore, experience was an objective reality.  Knowledge gained from experience mattered little if it did not apply back to experience.  If experience is a subjective reality, then it can hardly be applied to other persons’ lives.

Wesley’s concept of experience was very empirically based.  Anything that we understand or consider knowledge is gained through experience.  This isn’t an individualistic idea because anyone can experience the same reality (i.e. burning sulfur produces a horrid smell, helium produces a high pitched voice).  As such, experience is the source from which we derive our knowledge about life.  However, experience does not simply provide data.  It is also the arena in which we apply our knowledge to see if it is true.  In Wesley’s thinking, any knowledge is only as good as its ability to be applied back to experience.

Even though experience has an authority role for Wesley, he also understood that the knowledge it provides is incomplete.  Using only our empirical senses it is impossible to make assertions about God or the spiritual realm.  Therefore, we must either be like Locke and say that knowledge has reached its logical end and can go no further.  Or, we must say that there is another authority that speaks about “trans-sensory” realities and that it has an authority on par with empirical experience.  However, these “trans-sensory” realities are not separate from empirical realities.  They impact one another.

Experience is also subject to incorrect interpretation.  People can be delusional or unreasonable in understanding their experience.  Therefore, experience must also be subject, as any good experiment, to tests which weigh the worth of a proposition.  By this method, Wesley would often take an individual’s experience and make it objective by holding it to these standards of investigation.  Logic and reason provided such a tool for assessing the coherence of a belief gained from experience.

Since, for Wesley, experience needed to be practical as an experiment, it is little wonder that “trans-sensory” realities were not divorced from empirical realities.  In other words, experience became the great testing ground.  Experience was the venue in which theological perspectives could be assessed.  However, experience was also subject to Scripture for correct interpretation.  Experience and Scripture were two balancing authorities, dependent upon one another for mutual correction.  Furthermore, reason serves as a tool which allows these two authorities, Scripture and experience, to interact on level ground.  This is owing to the fact that all Truth is God’s Truth and will not be contradictory, according to the rules of logic.

Furthermore, the bent toward practical knowledge was due to Wesley’s understanding that knowledge is of little use if it does not go beyond simple information.  Rather, knowledge needs to be transformational, it must lead to genuine Christian living if it is to be of value.  Right thinking is not the end goal.  It has been said that the “Devil is orthodox.”  In other words, Satan does not accompany right belief with right response.  Wesley believed that it was necessary for our beliefs about reality to affect our experience.

However, in saying that knowledge need be practical, Wesley also did not allow for much theory.  If it was not immediately applicable, Wesley held little affinity for such thoughts.  However, this thinking does not allow for theoretical knowledge that has yet to be proven.  Immediate applicability does not always determine the validity of a proposition.  As such, viewing experience in such a way quite possibly limits our receptivity to future knowledge and learning.  It produces and encourages a type of close-minded traditionalism.  And, it quite possibly limits our receptivity to the Spirit’s leading.

In doing theology, it is necessary that we take into account experience.  We must realize that the natural realm is not immediately separate from the spiritual realm.  They both have ramifications for the other.  Theology also must be practical in the sense that it must be conducive to authentic Christian living.  That does not mean that all theoretical theology is useless.  It may take time to work through all of the implications.  However, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is empty.  Ultimately, knowledge must be tested in the crucible of life.  Experience must also listen to the Word of Scripture as a source of authority so that it is not left to its own contrivances.  The inverse of this statement is also true.  Theology must also listen to experience of the collective whole.  To divorce theology from experience is to render theology impractical, overly lofty, and legalistic.

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