Experience as a theological source

Religion / Science

Chuck Blanchard, a parishioner at Trinity Cathedral, has been bloggin’ up a storm this past week. He’s already landed in the thicket of questions surrounding human sexual orientation.

In one of his latest posts he talks about a bit about how he has tried to find his way through the tangle and explains a bit more about how human experience interacts with theological norms:

“In an earlier post I noted the fact that it was our personal experiences with gay and lesbians that led us to take a hard look at the theology of same sex relationships. Since I was criticized by Hansoniana (in a kind way) for arguing that theology should be developed by these personal experiences alone, let me be clear: my point was that these personal experience merely lead to the inquiry, they themselves do not answer the theological question. Nonetheless, these experiences offered us important empirical information that can inform the theological exploration in at least two instances. First, these personal experiences confirmed that sexual orientation is innate, and not chosen. Second, these experiences showed that same sex relationships can be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

I tried to leave a comment on his blog but for some reason wasn’t able to do so – I was probably messing something up – so I’ll have to respond here.

Chuck goes on to talk about an essay I wrote a year ago on why the Listening Process called for by Lambeth 1998 1.10 was important.

But there’s an implicit thinking in that essay that I really need to make more explicit. It has to do with the methodology of using human experience as a theological source or even as a norm. It is my understanding that one of the differences between the Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church is that Methodists explicitly allow human experience into the Episcopal triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as one of the sources of theological inquiry. If it’s not true for Methodists, it’s certainly true for some of the newer methods of doing theology (feminist, liberation, queer, etc.)

The standard critique of using human experience as a source for theology is that one of the tenets of the faith is that our human nature is ontologically flowed. If we can’t fully trust reason – which we supplement with other sources – then how much less can we trust our human experience.

But, as I argue in that paper, there is I believe a way to use human experience in theologically useful manner.

In a nutshell then, the way theological inquiry really works is that we begin by having an experience. Something about that experience seems holy or connected to God. We test that sense of the numinous by examining our triad of sources and norms to see if that sense can be validated. In other words, experience is the source of our theological inquiry in that it leads us to ask the questions in the first place.

(I really need to write this up in a more formal way, but hopefully you get the idea.)

This is a question I’ve been thinking about for years because it seems to me to be at the core of how science and religion need to interact when it comes to moral questions. (Science is not only the source of the experience but it is also strongly present in the use of Reason as a norm.)

NB: Some have argued that human experience is already included in the triad of Anglican norms as part of human reason. I think they’re right – but I would still insist that human experience has then a two-fold role.

Read the rest here: Another Priest’s View of Gays and Lesbians and Faith

(Via A Guy in the Pew.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. If we discount human experience in our quest for theology, what about the disciples and St. Paul? All they really had to go on was human experience. What they experienced certainly wasn’t tradition(al), stretched the bands of scripture in a new direction (interpreting the prophets’ social commentary into fulfillment in a different manner) and certainly was beyond all reason (who could find a guy rising from the dead and then eating fish, popping in and out of locked rooms, etc.). What they were left with at the end of the day was the individual experience of Christ embodying tradition, scriptural interpretation and a new form of reasoning all seen through the indivdual lenses through which the whole was seen.

  2. When we talk about experience, we really mean observation of the Creator’s reality (inevitably filtered through our limited sensory- and processing apparatus). And observation, of course, is what distinguishes theory from fantasy. Scientists all recognize this, or at least pay lip service to it; would that more theologians did so.

  3. Yes, DC, I agree with you, but I guess I’d go a step farther include our internal experience of our sitz-im-leben and our experience of the numinous in our lives as additional pieces under the aegis of “experience”.
    Would that strike you as too over-reaching?

  4. It wouldn’t strike me as the least bit overreaching, Nick. Maybe I’m being too left-brained about this, but I tend to think of “internal experience of our sitz-im-leben and our experience of the numinous in our lives” as simply varieties of (inevitably-filtered) observation.

  5. I guess I have my scientist hat on. One sort of experience is external to the observer and can be verified in a reasonably straightforward way by another observer (like a measurement of mass.) The other (which my tortured prose attempts to describe) is internal to the observer and is therefore not so easily verifiable by external ones.

  6. Fr. Nick,
    The revival of Schliermacher presently going on in Germany is helpful for this reason…that experience has always been part of the theological data for Christians and can’t be otherwise in a faith that proclaims God became human flesh and dwelt among us. Interpretting what God is up to once data are coming in is the proper task of theology and causes us to reread everything with new eyes just as Isaiah was read with new eyes in the encounter between Philipp and the Ethiopian Eunuch or Paul and the Gentiles.
    Our Creeds are not only intellectual exercises of assent but attempt to set out limits that maintain recognizably the living relationship folks have experienced as salvation through this Jesus who is alive and reigns with the Father and made present to us by the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.
    Not to mention, space was made for we gentiles because of experience both as gentiles and observation of the Spirit at work among us by Jewish Christians. It seems disingenuous not to allow for other possibilities of this sort where experience provides data especially by gentile Christians who are themselves a part because of this opening. Br. Thomas, OBG suggested this here.
    I would say that it’s both observation and internal experience of the numinous and our subjective self in relationship. The latter (inner) however is varified by testing for fruits (the observation piece) especially the virtues which Paul gives us a short list (a similar thing is done when someone receives a private revelation…what are the fruits…) of but these same are the kinds of flourishing recognizable in the social sciences of psychology and sociology (that as Aquinas or Hooker might say grace builds upon nature, so we people of the Incarnation must reject hardened bifurcations of secular/sacred or science/religion)–both of which have increasing data on the goods arising in and from relationships of we who are same-sex oriented.
    As for our human nature being too flawed; if Anglicanism said this, which is a depraved humanity view, then Hooker was wrong, and reason and observation of things to determine a godly response can play no part at all to begin with. Another way of looking at this is to ask what does the experience of grace show–a more Lutheran perspective that insists that ethics must always have a descriptive or empirical component because our reason is “touched” but we can recognize grace and the workings of grace in another’s life. This writeup of Fr. Hefling I think is a recognizable application in the vain of Hooker:
    …There you have the real issue: the enormous difference between holding, in the tradition of Hooker and Sanderson, that there are understandable reasons for what God wills, and holding that what God wills, he simply wills – full stop…
    …On the Anglican position, the first divine attribute is wisdom. It belongs to wisdom to set things in order, and God orders all creation “sweetly and mightily”. On the Puritan position, the first divine attribute is freedom. Nothing precedes God’s deciding, much less restricts it. What God chooses is good simply and solely because God chooses it…On the Anglican position there is ultimate harmony between the moral duties that follow from natural tendencies, and the imperatives God has revealed. Biblical commandments and ‘natural law’ coincide…On the Puritan position, there is nothing morally relevant to be learned from the nature of things…ethics has no empirical element…
    James Alison has been saying similar things from a Roman Catholic perspective and his note about a radical difference in understandings of Sin and Grace underline a theological difference we’ve held together through comprehensiveness to this point, but which underlines the deep differences between a more severe and a more moderate Augustinian view (depending on which parts of Augustine we draw upon).

  7. Thanks Christopher for your helpful contribution to this.
    If I read you middle point correctly, you’re pointing out that a close reading of Hooker would rule out too strong a position on total depravity? If so, thanks, I had suspected such a thing but hadn’t fleshed it out as fully as you have here.
    Do you think it would be acceptable to argue that our fallen nature would imply that our reason and experience are can not be presumed to be reliable, but rather must be considered in conversation with the other norms that Hooker uses in his work?

  8. Fr. Nick,
    First, I’m not an ethicist or an expert on Hooker, so that should qualify anything I say. I do read a lot, however, in the social sciences, ethics, and theology, and I find our Hookerian approach consonant with our finitude and limitedness in all the ways such is manifest.
    I would say our reason and experience cannot be presumed reliable of their own accord without communal discernment (the primary locus of this as I’ve written before is where the Outside Voice forming par excellence is explicitly present by promise–regular Eucharist where God is for us) relying upon that which Scripture makes clear are the marks of faith (virtues) for discernment, as we cannot know directly the work of the Trinity in another (indeed, cannot really know this in ourselves), but only indirectly by fruits (these are the data) and what from Scripture we can know is the shape anthropologically of God’s work for us and corresponds imperfectly to the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The point is , the Norm is God’s way of relating to us shown in Christ and made present to us now, especially in Eucharist, which is contained in Scripture and is sufficient statement of our faith. Hence, I reject generalized rulebook approaches to Scripture without a careful discernment that asks “Why” of the rules for specific application and that tests fruits of the rule in all persons to determine if present interpretation and application generally leads to flourishing. Rules applied generally to all without careful nuance may destroy rather than flourish some persons, breaking apart what should be kept together: commands and sin. Otherwise, if it’s simply because God said so, without application and “why”, we have a god different than the one Hooker praises.
    Indeed, because we are always formed prior to ourselves, by family, culture, friends, church, the question is Who is the primary voice to whom we attend. Community, even Church community, of its own accord without constant orientation first to God for us, especially the Cross and Resurrection, especially in Eucharist, can be deadly, and will show itself having fallen pray to demons by fruits such as scapegoating, demonizing/dehumanizing, persecution, murder, setting up dividing walls (the very definition of becoming less catholic), no matter how orthodox they claim to be (remember orthodox churchmen murdered Arius who was on his way to recant). In some sense our ethics and politics are those things which correspond more or less imperfectly to the relationship among the Divine Persons. Fruits determine the level of correspondence. Volf is most helpful here.
    For example, I was once a most painfully shy human being, perhaps to the point of pathology–we might call it curvatus in se or Sin. Much of this shyness had to do with hiding, and especially hiding my sexual orientation. I hated my body to the point of neglect. Was “holy” in that quite aloof but kind way perhaps like we might think of the pale Manichaeans, a form of godliness lacking the power thereof. I resolved to close myself off in a monastery not simply because I love Benedictine life, but to hide from others and especially from God. There’s no hiding from God…
    Roll that forward three years. When I was first began to come out, first to a fellow parishioner, then to my confessor, I found myself loved but in turmoil about where to go from here; I was already a regular meditator in the Jesus Prayer tradition and preparing for life in a monastery by following the regular schedule of prayer beginning at 4am. In meditation, having been graced that time with contemplation, out of nowhere a voice spoke, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” In that moment, I had a deep felt sense, indeed sensory overload to the point of tears, that I was loved by God not as someone other than myself, but as myself as gay. We might call this an internal experience.
    But what to do with this experience? I knew a liberty I’d never before known, that I am beloved of God not despite my sexual orientation, but because of my sexual orientation. God loves his gay children deeply and calls us beloved. I of course told my spiritual director of this. He was not surprised. Those words are words many gay persons have known in prayer.
    Roll that forward a month or two, and at confession across town, the priest, who had never met remarked after much pause, “What do you prayer?” “The Office.” “Well certainly the Office is the Prayer of the Church.” “God has favored you. Your life has seemed hard even impossible, but your journey is joyous… (much that must be left between that confessor, my spiritual director, myself, and God).”
    What to do with this experience? God showers grace on each of us, loves each of us uniquely and calls us out to do what only each of us can do given our gifts. That indeed my life has not been easy for many reasons, but that God is at work in the midst of hardship and joy arises not outside of this but in the midst of a painful birthing.
    A month or so later, I was praying the Office at 4am, and quite in turmoil, for my desire told me I was not meant for religious life (I won’t go into details) but was called to a life of partnership. I was angry at God for giving me this dilemma. In the middle of the psalm, the voice spoke quite insistently, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”
    What to do with this experience? I knew that this is about God’s graciousness, not my having to earn God’s affections, even should I fail or be mistaken. There is a liberty there that rather than lead to wantoness, leads to joyful desire to offer one’s life to God in dedication. But in what way?
    I stepped out in faith not knowing the where of my goings–that is part of faith. I could be wrong. I knew that then and was in fear and trembling. I began to interact with other lgbt persons at the university rather than keep them as I had at arms length as the dangerous other. I joined the “Gay Mass” at my parish. At first they thought I was coming to be a support as a monastic-in-training. I came out to this group over time, and discovered the amazing people they were, many of them living lives toward others that put most people to shame. I began to date with all of the mess that comes with that when one is in their twenties but an adolescent in this area. I lamented to my priest in confession following one disastrous short-term relationship: “I have no role models”. He reponded, “The Holy Spirit will guide you.”
    I went to seminary and met my partner. And there is much more to the story, courtship, commitment through circumstances most heterosexuals would fail over, including difficulties due mostly not to secular culture but to church culture toward gay persons.
    As Alison suggests, Original Sin works both ways and those who point to gay persons as simply broken heterosexuals because of the Fall must also consider that it may not be the existence of gay persons that is the problem but their attitudes and cultures toward gay person may be result of Sin–that which alienates us from God and others. It may not be that gay persons are deluded and under illusion about themselves but the Church has been deluded and under illusion about gay persons, and has set up cultures that inhibit there flourishing. We have to look at what are the affects that such cultures have on gay persons (many sociological and psychological studies show quite a lot already and those gay persons who are religious tend to suffer most, for example), the affects that acceptance of one’s orientation and responsible doing of that orientation has, the affects that the love of others (family, friends, partners) has on those who come out, the affect that accepting the place society and culture give gay persons as merely broken heterosexuals has on gay persons, etc.
    What have been the fruits amidst a lot of struggle, suffering, wandering, and joy? First, a recognition that much of the curvatus in se is not simply of my own but is shaped by the voices of others prior to myself (when your father is putting down those queers and faggots from the time you’re a small boy and your church is damning homosexuals to hell from the moment you attend, shapes you in profound ways), especially in society and church that really do say implicitly and explicitly, “God loves you. Kill yourself.” This goes down to the Church not providing the basic things needed as a gay Christian to successfully lead a faithful life with necessary supports (what Volf calls ecclesial rights). Nonetheless, despite the attitudes of the Church as a whole, I’m not shy any longer. Reserved and conserved, certainly, but I find myself as prayer leader, a leader in my work, one willing to proclaim Christ and speak up to those who misuse power and authority especially by dehumanizing others either through liberal condescension (for many liberal heterosexuals especially using words like “inclusion” come across as exactly this) or conservative words of rejection or demands to be someone I’m not (what we Benedictines call self-willfulness), one willing to do the work for God’s lgbt people where the rest of the Body fails us (just this week, a young lesbian couple at the seminary has sought me out to consult about composing their union rite).
    Now, it isn’t I alone who have witnessed this, but those in my parish communities, my family and friends, and my spiritual directors/confessors and therapists. A young man once painfully turned in upon himself has increasingly become toward others, the most recently, with an increase in grace for this following what really was church-sponsored persecution of my person, my partner, and our relationship. I now serve on the vestry in my parish, on the board at my Benedictine community, am taking a leadership role. Fearfully, C and I are becoming the role models we never had. Who could have imagined this from a painfully shy young man who thought himself so worthless that hiding away or killing himself were the only options? These are all fruits, but they have unfolded over time as I recognized myself as accepted by God and loved by many friends and family, and by one man in particular. I am not the same person and yet I am not completely other either, just more myself. One of my friends, a staunch Roman Catholic, visited us a couple of years ago. He commented, “With C (my partner) you are more yourself than I’ve ever known you to be.
    This is a snippet of my witness to God’s work in my life. I think it is this type of telling that we need to listent to and record for posterity. This is part of that data for determining the what of a same-sex orientation and what a gay relationship might mean to those who are gay and to the community of faith as a whole. And that Scripture provides us with analogies and metaphors for naming such a relationship that resonate with many who are gay and in relationships, friendship and brother-/sister- hood.
    Remember Hooker only posited a two-legged stool, Scripture and Reason. His understanding of Reason, however, is vital because it is a matter of Wisdom or Logos and takes on a kenotic–giving of oneself for others–pattern if something is truly reasonable because God’s ordering of the universe is relational and interconnected. Fr. Hefling writes,
    …The ordinary, natural means by which we reach ordinary, natural ends – our native intelligence, the light of reason – does not suffice. Informed, conscientious deliberation does tell us the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. What it does not tell us, and what could only be revealed, is that doing those things which we know we ought to do is pleasing and acceptable to God…
    …What does all this imply about Scripture? Two things. First is that on matters of faith, on what Christians are to believe for their soul’s health, scripture is the sole authority. The second, however, is that Scripture is not and cannot be the complete, all sufficient criterion by which to discern our moral duty…
    God is not at odds with our best moral judgement. The human capacity to know the good is not only a capacity that he has created but also, what is more, a likeness and a taking part in his eternal Word, the true light that enlightens every man and woman.
    …There you have the real issue: the enormous difference between holding, in the tradition of Hooker and Sanderson, that there are understandable reasons for what God wills, and holding that what God wills, he simply wills – full stop…
    …On the Anglican position, the first divine attribute is wisdom. It belongs to wisdom to set things in order, and God orders all creation “sweetly and mightily”. On the Puritan position, the first divine attribute is freedom. Nothing precedes God’s deciding, much less restricts it. What God chooses is good simply and solely because God chooses it…On the Anglican position there is ultimate harmony between the moral duties that follow from natural tendencies, and the imperatives God has revealed. Biblical commandments and ‘natural law’ coincide…On the Puritan position, there is nothing morally relevant to be learned from the nature of things…ethics has no empirical element…

    I say this for two reasons: 1) because Hooker rejected using Scripture as a rulebook, or even, it would seem as simply a book by which we ape out our ethical approach or method and apply a “What Would Jesus Do?”, as Hefling notes also. No, we have to ask in light of the marks of faith, what do we do given new data? Rather, the use of Scritpure on the level of anthropological discernment, what Alison calls how grace is appropriated anthropologically, asks, Do we discern marks of faith–virtues? If so, we have a development, something in step with the deepest heart of the Tradition–the record of the ongoing work of God for us and our response to God over time and across cultures. If not, we have an innovation, something out of step with the deepest heart of the Tradition. And 2) this measure can be known not simply by churchy folk, but can be seen in the saecula because we are dealing with an anthropological matter (what Roman Catholics call third order doctrine, what we might call doctrine or moral theology) and not a matter of the content of our faith–the Who in whom we are in relationship to as our Beginning and End (what Roman Catholics call dogma and we call core doctrine).

Comments are closed.