One of the questions that came up from my “Starting Point” series was about the place of lived experience. That particular series focused particularly on theological starting point based on different emphasis in scriptural interpretation. However, throughout church history, leaders have acknowledged that we should make use of several different sources as we try to interpret and discern the best perspective to hold on a controversial matter. Scripture is often cited, by Christians, as the primary source. John Wesley talked about a three legged stool – with scripture being the seat. The other three sources are: tradition, reason and experience.
Many evangelicals tend to be wary of experience. It is typical to hear statements like, “You can’t rely on your feelings.” There seems to be a fear about the subjectivity of our own experience. And, it is true that human beings tend to be masters at self-deception. We can convince ourselves of all kinds of things that will lead to our own comfort and benefit – even if our conscience might twitch a bit.
But is this resistance to allow our experience to speak to us warranted – or is it evidence of the degree to which our fear has caused artificial compartmentalization within us? How many Christians have felt in their gut that something seems right – but the fear of judgment kept them from exploring a new and different way of living?
The reality is, that when we consider the four sources from which Christians draw to interpret and discern, experience impacts the way we engage the other three. Our experience, including what we’ve been taught and seen modeled for us, impacts how we engage scripture. And no matter how amazing the pastors, leaders, and teachers in our lives have been – no one is a perfect interpreter of scripture. All human beings must be willing to humbly acknowledge that they could be wrong – since no one apprehends perfectly. Our interaction with the disciplines of reason – philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, biology etc. – are also all impacted by our experience – what we’ve learned, what we’ve read, which scholars have influenced us. And the impact of tradition is clearly filtered through our experience – what church we grew up in, where our pastor went to seminary, what authors were recommended to us.
The idea that we can get away from the subjectivity of our experience is a fallacy. And the idea that we can argue away a person’s lived experience is also a fallacy. As much as we love to be in control and on top of things – the wild card that our experience is forces all of us to live with some mystery, uncertainty, and the potential of unanswered questions.
That is why our stories matter. And that is why our stories make people nervous. Stories can feel, at times, to be manipulative to those who are primarily concerned with coloring in the lines. That’s because stories impact us. They touch our emotions and our spirits. One pastor, who was very focused on trying to ensure that people in the church remained in opposition to gay marriage told me, “You have to be careful to not love people too much. Loving people changes you.” This statement screamed of a fear that experience – through love – would create an openness to others that couldn’t be trusted.
But …. If we actually look at the lives of some of our most esteemed biblical characters – we will see that they colored outside of the lines in dramatic and transformational ways. We will see that their experience of God took them way outside the common understanding and expectation of their day.
Consider these words from Richard Rohr: