In this series, I want to discuss the various sources that inform our theology – that is, our understanding of God. For an outline, I will use John Wesley’s Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I realize that this is not new information for many of my readers. However, perhaps we can all help ourselves think about this important topic.
Writing about and discussing Experience as a theological sources is probably more difficult than discussing all of the other sources put together. However, just as Scripture, Tradition, and Reason affect our theology – our understanding of God – whether for better or for worse, Experience also affect our theology – again, for better and for worse. Experience includes events that affect our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. But, Experiences also includes events which affect only our cognition and our feelings: emotions, dreams, visions.
These Experiences and our interpretation of these Experiences inform our theology. Similarly, our pre-existing theology colors our interpretation of our Experiences. It is difficult – if not impossible – to break this cycle. In fact, it may be that Experience is so powerful that it becomes the primary source for our understanding of God, whether we realize it or not. Thus, we hear many people who understand God as being cruel and uncaring due to painful experiences in the past. Experience is real, and our theology must account for Experience.
Of course, there are extremes to Experience just as there are for the other theological sources. For some, Experience becomes emotionalism which controls their entire life. For others, Experience is never to be trusted and never to be considered. Either extreme can lead people to misunderstand how Experience is truly affecting their understanding of God.
Also, there is interaction between Experience and the other sources of theology. For some, Experience is so strong an influence that it can trump Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. For others, and in other situations, Experience is merely one of several sources that work together to inform their understanding of God. Again, Experience and Reason can override Scripture and Tradition. Or, Experience and Tradition can override Scripture and Reason. In reality, their are a multitude of way in which the different sources work together in a person’s theology.
Often, Experience is dismissed because of “subjectivity”. The argument is made that since Experience is “subjective” then it must not be allowed to inform our theology, although perhaps Experience could reinforce our theology. However, this argument fails to recognize that only the interpretation of Experience is subjective. The Experience itself happened (either in the physical realm or the psychological real) – it is an objective, real event. Furthermore, the interpretation of any of the theological sources (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience) is subjective, not just the interpretation of Experience. Instead of dismissing Experience as “subjective”, it is much more beneficial that recognize that Experience does inform a person’s theology in some way.
As with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, it is dangerous and unhelpful to dismiss the affect that Experience has on a person’s theology. Instead, by examining our own theology and the way that Experience informs our own theology, we can better understand what we think about God. Plus, in considering the Experience of other people, we can also better understand their theology. Also, at this point it is beneficial to examine the interaction of all four theological sources. We also need to continue asking ourselves if there are other theological sources that impact our understanding of God.