The Subjective Religious Experience and Certainty

Posted: January 27, 2016 in Pastoral Ministry, Theology and Faith
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I had the opportunity to meet and dialogue with a group of clergy this week discussing the issue of honesty.  It was a dialogue about ways to engage in honest dialogue in the Church.  That may seem like a strange thing to say, considering the Church has always considered itself to be a place where honesty and truth are welcome.  Of course, in practice, we know that this is not always the case, but we are not always willing to admit the myriad ways we have failed to make this reality on both a personal and communal level.

In reflecting on the difficult nature of honesty, I was reminded of a conversation with a parishioner.  The conversation centered on worship and some of the practices that were being implemented.  The congregant was quite concerned about these practices and was curious why we were doing them in the first place.  As best as I could (which, admittedly, was probably very deficient), I tried to outline the reasons using theology, scripture, church history, and other tools for understanding the importance and necessity of these practices.  After I finished my dissertation, the parishioner quickly swept my explanation away, simply saying, “Well, that’s your opinion.”  My jaw was probably laying on the floor in puzzlement.

Granted, my explanation was an interpretation of how best to understand scripture, theology, and church history.  But, it was an educated interpretation – and, not one that I had simply conjured up as an opinion.  It was part of a larger tradition into which I have been ordained to embody and express faithfully (that does not mean it is without fault, but that it is not simply private opinion).  Yet, my words were dismissed by chalking it up to opinion – that realm of subjective, private experience that may or may not be rooted in some kind of truth and cannot possibly have any bearing on another person.  The dismissal of an “opinion” also dismissed any possibility of dialogue or engaging the issues at hand.  Thus, the parishioner could maintain “their opinion” without the incredible hassle of dealing with a contradicting idea or position.  Furthermore, it didn’t need to engage in theological reflection on Church practices, tradition, or scripture, which may very well have supported their understanding – or, perhaps, undermined it.

Thus, in this scenario there were two operating definitions of “opinion.”  Opinions differing from my opinion were merely subjective fancy and irrational imaginings, hardly worth considering their validity.  On the other side, “my opinion” is a matter of certainty, especially because I feel it so deeply to be true.  My experience and what I know are the markers for what is true, even if there is evidence to the contrary.  “Opinion” has this very strange relationship with truth and honesty.  It can be quickly dismissed if it challenges my presuppositions.  At the same time, something is a matter of Truth if I hold it to be true.  This strange tension finds its roots in the larger cultural forums, politics in particular.  And, as demonstrated in politics (and, too often the Church), it results in a polarization of “opinions” where no dialogue is possible.  Because my “opinion” is rooted in certainty and opposing views are just some “personal experience” that demonstrates clear naivete, there is no need to converse.  There are only two options: “My way or the highway.”  Hardly conducive to dialogue.

Where dialogue is no longer possible, neither is the capacity for honesty.  If personal, subjective opinion is the base-line for truth, dialogue is quite inconceivable and finally impossible.  That’s where postmodernism lands – everything eventually implodes into self-validated “truths” and the person with “the biggest stick wins.”  This logic is particularly foreign and fundamentally corrosive of the Christian faith as articulated in the life of Jesus.  Jesus makes the astounding claim: “I am the truth.”  Truth is not subjective opinion, as if we get to make up who Jesus is.  Truth is a person and one determined by the life of God, empowered by the Spirit.

Jesus makes honest conversation and dialogue possible because truth is not rooted in the personal psyche of each person.  It is rooted in him.  And, wherever we stand in relation to Jesus (i.e., liberal, conservative, bigot, caretaker, rich, poor, humble, haughty, greedy, giving, wise, foolish, etc.), Jesus calls us from where we are to where he is.  Thus, Christian dialogue moves from trying to prove who is right and wrong toward both parties seeking to discern who Jesus is.  I can’t tell you how radical of a transition that is for everyone.  But, it certainly has radical implications for how we engage in difficult conversations.  We aren’t seeking a position on which to stand; we are seeking Jesus.  When we can dismiss another person simply for the reason that they differ from me, we have lost the capacity for honest conversation.


The relegation of religion, in particular Christianity, to a privatized, subjective opinion or experience hijacks the nature of the Christian faith.  It was never meant to be something that I alone decide or something that is done in isolation.  It is a faith which is always received and it is received from Jesus through the hands of a wounded Church.  That means that we should be honest about our shortcomings and our failures to fully understand and live like Jesus.  It also means that we need to be ready to receive the gifts God gives us through other people – people wounded just like me.  And, although we might not come to full agreement on all things, we can certainly agree to live in love with one another.  But, oh my, how hard the work of honesty can be – even within the Church.

Jesus words in Matthew 7 come to mind: “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you. “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Let us seek Jesus together with all honesty.

  1. Sylvia says:

    this is a good post… esp. in light of the political discussions that are blooming which are so often backed with theological beliefs. how to maintain a unity among diversity is an important aspiration.

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