The Heresy of Experientialism
In his post, “Does Experience Affect our Theology?” Peter Enns briefly speculates about the role of experience in the formation of theology. He concludes with this point, “We have to be willing to rethink who this God is, this God who isn’t as predictable as we might think.” This is a principle C.S. Lewis illustrates when it is said of Aslan: “He isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Christians should avoid feeling too comfortable with their conceptions of God because he just might break them. At the same time, God is knowable because he is the source of Truth.
Enns’ point does make one wonder about the responsible use of experience in the development of theology. Experiences, properly understood, are perceived events which are played out in time and space. Perhaps without realizing it, many gravitate to extreme views of experience by either severely minimizing its impact or by allowing it to dictate the direction of their theology. In reality, experience is theologically valuable but only insofar as it is subordinated to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
In order to see the problem with overemphasizing experience in theology, take the 2016 election as an example. Democrats pushed a narrative that the economy was headed in the right direction. Republicans claimed that everything was going the wrong way. They both appealed to people’s “experiences” to persuade them to vote for their candidate, which is why Trump won in areas where people were generally pessimistic about the direction of the country. The problem is that mutually exclusive truth claims based on experience do not determine the objective reality.
Attempts to understand experience outside an objective framework (that relies on external and transcendent measures) are the ultimate futility. Another example might be segregation. To whites in power, it was viewed as a means of maintaining order. To black folks, it was a demeaning system of oppression. The pro-segregation interpretation of experiences is warped and depraved, while the experience that segregation was dehumanizing is much truer. But this can only be the case if there are a prioi principles of right and wrong, justice and injustice, etc. Any attempt to understand experience apart from transcendent principles leads not only to the death of Truth but also to the death of any sustainable ethical system and moral standard. One cannot begin with experience in order to build a theology, because there is no way to arbitrate between mutually-exclusive interpretations of experience.
In the Anglican and Wesleyan faith traditions, we have something called the Quadrilateral. This is the principle that theology should be funneled through Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. All four legs of the stool are necessary; a certain degree of dynamic tension between them is inevitable, but the order is important. Prima Scriptura. Scripture comes first, as Irenaeus states in Against Heresies, “God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (III.1.1). Following Scripture is Tradition, which has been passed to us through the Church, as Paul instructed the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:15; RSV): “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Reason recognizes the unity of Truth in Christ. Experience allows us to put flesh and bones on our theology.
Overemphasizing experience’s role in the quadrilateral can be a form of heresy that makes one lose perspective. For example, Arianism made the valid observation that Christ was human, but at the expense of his divinity. Similarly, a theology founded too much on experience overly diminishes the roles of Scripture and Tradition. This is a mistake made by the article “When Good Christian Girls Need Planned Parenthood” by Sara Novic. As a conservative woman who needed to be tested for STDs because of her unfaithful husband, she felt uncomfortable at her Christian doctor and instead went to Planned Parenthood where she was treated with “Christ-like” care. She had a positive experience at Planned Parenthood and that altered her opinion of the organization. Never mind the aborted fetuses who are incapable of writing articles about their experiences at Planned Parenthood. For a very different interpretation of this article, check out “Why I Share Troubling Articles (And You Should Too)” by Conciliar Post’s own AJ Maynard.
It becomes even more problematic to use the experiences of others, like the article above, to formulate or unduly influence one’s theology. Relying too heavily on narratives is problematic because it implicitly assumes that there is a larger mosaic that can be constructed through the accumulation of others’ experiences. It is the same problem with the story of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant, which is commonly used to justify relativism guided by experience. This parable assumes that its narrator can see the whole elephant. By reasoning from a transcendent perspective that sees a need for narratives x, y, and z to complete the mosaic, one actually, and possibly unintentionally, acknowledges the theological limits of experience in constructing a theology. This is because they have pre-determined, through Reason or other means, that diversity in perspectives and experiences is important. Viewing narratives in this way risks commodifying the experiences of others too. A woman’s story about her experience can easily become another in a collection of stories to be consumed. Therefore, the experiences of others, alongside our own, should be used carefully and placed within a proper framework.
This is not to devalue experience or somehow insist that listening to the stories of others is meaningless. Rather, it is to place experience in its proper context so that it can be used to maximum effectiveness in the construction of a theology. Experiences can teach us things. For example, partaking in the Eucharist is an objective reminder that one has been incorporated into the Body of Christ. It is a weekly experience that is incredibly formative. However, the experience’s significance is derived from an understanding of Scripture (John 6:55-58; 1 Cor 10:16-17), Tradition (the Church’s doctrine of the Real Presence is sufficiently catholic), and Reason (Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics). Personally, I have had experiences at the Lord’s Table that fall in line with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. However, the experience is not and should not be the driving force of anyone’s Eucharistic theology because that would be allowing it to have undue influence. Allowing experiences to dictate our theology would be akin to trying to build a one-legged stool, it could not stand on its own. When there are those experiences though, there is at least a framework with which to explain what is occurring.
Experiences do have a role in shaping and forming us. The Apostle Paul’s Damascus Road experience led to a genuine conversion. But his theology was primarily drawn from the Scriptures and Traditions of Judaism which were reconfigured post-Christ. In order for experience to have its maximum impact, it needs to be subordinated to interpretive lenses bigger than itself, namely Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.