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:
Experience Trumping any Scripture or Tradition:
Kingdom people are history makers. They break through the small kingdoms of this world to an alternative and much larger world, God’s full creation. People who are still living in the false self are history stoppers. They use God and religion to protect their own status and the status quo of the world that sustains them. They are often fearful people, the nice, proper folks of every age who think like everybody else thinks and have no power to break through, or as Jesus’ opening words state, “to change” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17) and move beyond their small agenda. Courage is certainly the foundational virtue. Without it, faith, love, and hope do not happen. It takes immense courage to trust your own experience, and to be willing to pay the price if you are wrong. And you might just be!
Yet why do we piously admire kingdom people like Mary and Joseph, and then not imitate their faith journeys, their courage, their non-reassurance by any religious system? These were two uneducated laypeople who totally trusted their inner experience of God (angels and stars) and who followed these to Bethlehem and beyond. Mary and Joseph walked in courage and blind faith that their own experience was true—with no one to reassure them they were right. Their only safety net was God’s love and mercy, a safety net they must have tried out many times or else they would never have been able to fall into it so gracefully.
Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, pp. 66-68.
As the church wrestles with the reality of diversity on a question like gay marriage for Christians, let us remember how God uses people’s experience to lead and guide them into new and fresh revelation of his working in a particular time and place and people. We can trust that the Holy Spirit will help us discern. We do not need to be afraid. As we love, as we enter another’s story, as we listen …. we can trust that Jesus is more than able to reveal himself to us ….. and perhaps we ought not to be so surprised if it seems he is revealing himself as lavish in love and grace and mercy. And when it sounds too good to be true …. that is because the mystery of God’s outrageous grace and unconditional love is more than we could ever ask or imagine!