Theology and Experience @ Liverpool Living Theology

This end-of the-day slot and its title, ‘Talk on Theology and Experience’, poses a bit of a problem: isn’t there something contradictory or at least a bit disjointed about ‘talk’ and ‘experience’. We talk before an experience and we talk after it but when our experience is underway we are somehow too busy to be talking about it—we are doing it, being it, living it. If we keep stopping to analyze our experience we never get to have any. But if we never talk about our experience we never really understand it, we never grasp its significance, or let its significance shape our lives.
Anyway, it’s my task to introduce the sessions that will follow on the other afternoons this week by saying something today to get you thinking and talking about theology and experience and the relationship between the two.
I thought it was only fair to start with something both experiential and theological: a brief memory exercise.
It’s this: can you name for yourself just one thing you know about God? Could be anything. Big or small. Just see what comes to mind. …
That was part one. Part two is similar: can you name for yourself something you know about God because someone told you or taught you? Might be same answer. Might be different. …
Finally: can you name for yourself something you know about God from your own experience? That might be harder or it might be easier. …
Now the talk bit: turn to your neighbour and tell each other some of those things you know about God. Just listen and notice. Very briefly. A couple of minutes.
There! If theology is talk about God we’ve just done some—or at least started to.
When it comes to theology, experience is a contentious issue. What does theology have to do with experience? I asked that a few days ago in our community room and the answer was ‘everything’! But, for some people, theology is the prime example of a subject that is total nonsense: completely isolated from and irrelevant to day-to-day experience. Or read the papers these days and you’ll find religious belief represented as a kind of dangerous fanaticism that flies in the face of common human experience and human dignity.
And, even within Christian circles, experience and theology seem to get set against each other. Look at the Anglican Church’s current battles over women bishops or gay bishops. What weight does the experience of the ministry of women or gay people have when balanced against the heft of revelation embodied in scripture and tradition? How do you put the two into conversation? And who is to arbitrate the outcome and on what grounds?
The relation of experience and authority has a particular poignancy for a Jesuit. Ignatius suffered accusations from both sides. He was suspected for many years of being a heretic who taught that the experience of God was a better guide than the Church. He spent many a night in ecclesiastical prisons over it and went to great lengths to get his orthodoxy attested. All this shaped his destiny, sending him off to study theology so he could have the credentials to keep helping others find God in their own experience. And yet in his manual for retreat givers there’s an infamous and embarrassing section on how to think with the church which says, among other things, ‘what seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it’.
How can one man be both so trusting in experience and so careful to lay it aside when authority says otherwise? Jesuit theologians still find themselves hammered on that anvil.
The question for us today is how far can our experience reveal to us anything about God? Because I’d take a bet we believe it can. Ignatius himself in his pilgrim testament says, after a series of mystical visions of the Trinity and the sacraments, even if there were no scriptures to teach such things he would be resolved to die for them.
We do tend to believe our eyes. We want to know for ourselves and not just because someone tells us. Yet we acknowledge both the power of illusion and the need for expert witnesses.
In fact most of our daily living is based on the agreement of experience and authority: we expect the sun to rise because it always has and because we have been told about the earth’s rotation. We trust ourselves to elevators both because our experience assures us they’re worth the risk and because we trust the inventor, the builder and the maintenance crew. But it only takes one brush with disaster and we stick to the stairs for ever after.
Experience has the power to impel us. What we have experienced we believe with a force of feeling that can change our lives. You can master any number of texts on the psychology and physiology of human interaction but only the experience of being in love will melt your heart.
You can know the tradition, quote scripture verbatim, and have read every theologian from Augustine to Zizoulias yet not have a knowledge of God that changes your life.
I think everyone would accept that our experience can affect the way we live what we believe. But how does our experience influence the content of what we believe?
Experience and belief are intimately intertwined. See a young man in a hoody running at you and what you experience will depend on whether you read the Daily Mail or you are expecting your long-lost nephew. On the other hand no amount of faith will save you if you step off a cliff.
So experience is a kind of trump card. Science has taught us the power of experiment to destroy any number of daft, or even obviously true, theories. What about theology? Is theology a science? And even if it were what would it be the science of? There’s something very elusive and difficult in the idea we experience God. God is more than a little beyond our experience. God isn’t a thing alongside other things for us to experience in the same way. In that sense God does not exist at all. You could search the universe and catalogue every atom and not find God hiding anywhere. And yet we believe that God is to be experienced. Not forensically maybe. But there all the same, mediated through all those created things. We Jesuit’s make our living helping people find God in all things, helping them sift their experience for signs of God, helping them live with what they find. If you spend your days sitting across from people of faith and people of none as they talk about their experience and their sense of the sacred you can’t doubt God is to be found anywhere you care to look. And not just lurking in the shadows but leaping up and down, longing for attention. God, it seems to me, is eager to reveal herself.
Does that mean we can all do our own thing and set up our own religions? Be our own gurus? It’s a great way to be tax-exempt!
One of the other things you learn as a spiritual director is that Ignatius was right when he passed on what he had learned: our experience cannot be taken at face value. For Ignatius our experience is rarely neutral; it is always leading us somewhere. What happens to us, what we feel, what we think, our desires and our fears—all the moving inside us that measures our experience—all that is either nudging us a step deeper into God or a step further away. Our experience is polarized that way. You might be able to perform neutral experiments to measure gravity but a religious reading of our experience is going to demand what Ignatius calls discernment: a decision about the origin and direction of the experience. Because some experience is misleading when it speaks of God and some is trustworthy. There are signs to look for, symptoms of the spirits we follow, but discerning them demands a peculiar and contemplative attitude. You have to trust the experience enough to let it breathe and show its colours but doubt it enough to hold it provisional. Neither suspicious nor credulous. Subtle as serpents and gentle as doves.
And that attitude is very hard to maintain alone—impossible I’d venture. Spiritual discernment is done in company. Our experience of God only gains weight in community. We can only trust ourselves when we trust others to trust us.
I started out opposing experience and revelation as alternate sources for our knowledge of God but where does revelation come from but someone’s experience; someone’s experience a community has discerned and made their own? What is scripture but the written trace of countless experiences we have together deemed reliable and revelatory? We do not properly approach our Sunday worship with a sceptical attitude. There’s something about belonging to a faith community that means we go to hear and be spoken to by scripture and tradition. We start by acknowledging the word’s right to address us and shape our experience. But that right is ultimately something we recognize and confer. When scripture or tradition loses its authority over our experience it is up to our experience and our creativity to make something new from it.
A currently contested aspect of scripture concerns the gender of God. Think about it for a moment and you know God is beyond gender just as God is beyond colour or weight. But tradition and scripture have solidified around God as very emphatically Father. But there is a generation of women and men who cannot hear God as exclusively ‘He’ without wondering about the power, politics and oppression embedded in the text and supported by it. That experience has demanded a new attention to an aspect of the text that wasn’t visible to previous generations and any number of interesting theological developments have followed—interesting and still under discernment. We are still living with the consequences for our liturgy for example. And some people—in low and high places—are outraged. It can be ecclesiastically quite ‘dangerous’ to call God Mother.
But what would it be like if we as churches took seriously the experience of groups who have been traditionally un-noticed or un-admitted? Those whose experience has not had the chance yet to become tradition.
Maybe you find yourself in such a position: female, or gay, or poor, or young, or handicapped—name your niche. Or maybe you occupy the centre ground. Either way what has your experience to say to theology? How is your experience a source for theology?
I want to follow all this talk of experience with just a little talk of theology. I’ve been taking it for granted that we know what the word means, but ask a roomful of theologians what theology is—or is about—and you can be sure the fur will fly.
I do want to say a couple of things, though, about theology that seem to me important. They kind of follow from what I’ve said about experience. If theology is God-talk, why do we talk of God? I think the only sensible answer is because God has already been talking to us. Theology is always a response to God’s activity in the world of our experience. Even if it is the perceived absence or absurdity of that experience. We do theology because we must—because silence won’t satisfy.
We might think we are amateurs where theology is concerned. And I hope that is right. Long before theology was an academic discipline, the experts where not the ones who pondered and disputed but the ones who prayed. Theology was what you said about God when you had been yourself encountered in prayer. Spirituality hadn’t been invented then. Mysticism hadn’t been thought of. There was just theology: the proper domain of amateurs—those who love what they do.
The same cultural shift that makes us divide touchy-feely spirituality from academically rigorous theology also makes us think of prayer as something purely private and personal. But a theology that grows out of our experience is a communal enterprise. Both in the way a community ratifies and recognizes itself in that experience and comes to define itself through it and in the way that experience is disputed and worth arguing over.
Theology is communal because it is about communication. It’s always a dialogue, a conversation—often a hubbub. And that means disagreement is unavoidable. In fact it is essential. I said earlier, after asking you to tell your neighbour what you know about God, that that was theology or at least its start. Theology only really starts when the telling turns into misunderstanding.
We start from different places and we hardly know what we know until we try to tell someone else. There are two extreme ways of handling the hubbub. One is to suppress it in the interests of unity and change from conversation to monologue. That’s theology as experts explaining things to idiots. At the other extreme the conversation splinters into loads of little huddles where the like-minded agree with each other and ignore or despise those who differ.
You can tell I don’t think either approach is adequate to theology or experience. I think theology demands both openness and discipline. Openness to listen as well as speak. Openness to other voices and other experiences. Openness to tradition. Openness to discovery. Openness to being wrong.
Discipline is about the desire for truth—or at least the fear of falsehood. How do we check out our experience of God but by talking about it, finding its echoes in tradition and scripture, hearing it affirmed by our community, letting it be criticized, corrected, and creatively remade.
After all theology is about God … who is above all else creative: creative and constant and eager to communicate.
So where does that leave us?
What if you turned back now to your neighbour from before and let them know how their knowledge of God sits with your experience? What if you explored that? Then we might truly be doing some living theology.

7 replies on “Theology and Experience @ Liverpool Living Theology”

  1. Hi, I’m a first year divinity student at Glasgow University and a candidate in training for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. I came across this website and article while researching for a Theology essay which is due tomorrow. Just wanted to say thank you and I’ll visit again, when I’ve the luxury of a bit more time!


  2. Hi,
    I am doing a correspondence course on theology for the past 3 years and struggling.
    Thank you for this article of yours which confirm alot of my thoughts.
    Will visit again.

  3. Hallo!
    i am a theology student in Kenya, carrying a research on whether experience is a source of theology. Be blessed, i have liked your site.

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