The Place of Experience in Theology

Theology is not typically informed by personal experience with God – rarely do any of the thinkers of Christianity’s 2000 use their own personal experience to bolster a theological argument or idea, which leads me to wonder: why? If a Christian, in their own personal communion with God, has an experience or hears a word from God – wouldn’t said person be within their rights to put that at the forefront of their theological thinking?

It’s an interesting issue – the problem of subjectivity in Christianity and in Christian experience. I will devote more thought to this.

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2 thoughts on “The Place of Experience in Theology

  1. gaudetetheology October 14, 2012 / 6:13 pm

    Pardon? Isn’t experience one-fourth of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? Don’t all the “bottom-up” approaches to theology privilege reason and experience over scripture and tradition? Isn’t every strand of identity-based liberation theology (feminist, womanist, mujerista, queer, black, asian, …) grounded in the experience of a particular community?

    I think you must mean to define “experience” extremely narrowly, as mystical experience of God during prayer.

    But even then: think Augustine, Luther, Francis of Assisi, all the great theologians who had dramatic conversion experiences that unquestionably shaped their approach to theology as well as their prayer and praxis.

    Personal, mystical experience tends to get treated in the areas of private revelation (over against public), at least in the Roman Catholic tradition, and discernment. The only well-known work on discernment seems to be in the Ignatian tradition, but I’ve seen a few things that have come out over the past ten years that are working on it. In particular I’ve heard that (some of?) the Emergence movements place particular emphasis (in practice, if not yet in writing) on having committed discernment partners as an essential element of living the faith. Likewise, you’d think that contemporary spiritual directors would be writing in this area, as Ignatius did.

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    • whitefrozen October 14, 2012 / 6:55 pm

      I am defining it quite narrowly(my time was very limited when I posted that as it is now) – I intend to work through all the figures you mentioned, and particularly the Wesleyan tradition. But yes, I was referring to the more mystical encounters in prayer – obviously you are correct when you note the place if experience in theology and whatnot.

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