Ever since Albert Outler developed and propagated the idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the idea that John Wesley used Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, United Methodist theology has existed in a state of perpetual disagreement in terms of how to value and relate these four sources together. On the more traditionally evangelical end, it is said that Scripture is the highest value and the norming norm that determines how tradition, reason, and experience are understood and appropriated. However, it is often times the case that these four sources are treated on the same level, allowing for more progressive theologies that value human feeling and perspective. In a large part, the source of the divide over sexuality and marriage in the United Methodist church relates to precisely this division: what role do the other sources, particularly experience, play in theology. To that end, I am going to agree more with the sentiment of my more progressive United Methodists; experience is important; really important. In fact, I would suggest all theology is based on experience.
By that notion, I mean this: every act of thinking about God and life is based on our experience; what determines the thoughts I have and hold are the experiences I had. For instance, the very act of reading Scripture is an experience; my thoughts about God and life does not arrive in some way independent of the very experience of reading. Or, if I am reading reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, the very recitation of it influences how it is I think about theology. When I am weighing different proposals for how God can be both one and yet three, the act of reasoning itself impacts the very neural networks of my brain that “store” the metaphysical ideas I hold to. There is no getting around; experience is the only source of theology we have…..
However, not all experiences are of equivalent value. Certainly, all but the most skeptical of us would agree that the knowledge that a physicist gains from the experience of hypothesis, observation, theorizing, collaborating with colleagues, etc. is more reliable than the ideas that a person has in a state of hallucination. Even if one wanting to shy away from the word “truth,” I am sure almost everyone would be much more willing to place more trust in what the scientist says over what the person who is hallucinating is saying. Almost all of us intuitively recognize that certain ideas are more reliable because of the state of mind we attribute to the persons who produced and disseminated those ideas.
However, for some reason, when it comes to religion and theology, we operate as if one person’s experience is of equivalent reliability as another person’s experience. It partly roots in the way Western society has treated God and religion as a personal thing that no one can really know anything about; it is simply a matter of personal opinion and thus all opinions are of equal levels of validity. It is perhaps also rooted in what is a very humane idea, that we should not deny the experience that a person is having. However, a person describing their experience is different from a person making claims about something that goes beyond their own experience. If I am speaking of God as result of my experience, then I am not only talking about myself but I am talking about someone who is different from myself, that is unless I hold to some pan(en)theistic or have some delusion of grandeur about my own self.
But if we questioned the presuppositions that all experiences that lead us to think about God are of equal reliability, which is simply an a priori assumption that is not clearly true but is only believed because culture ridicules any challenge to this methodological agnosticism, then we are left with quite a different view of the relationship of theology and experience: some experiences are more reliable for theology than others. All things being equal,1, we who are more evangelical leaning can say that the experience of reading Scripture is more reliable than the experience of reasoning, for instance. Or, that my experience of working in my tradition is going to be more likely to give me something true and valuable than my own experience of sexual desire. In saying this, there is no denying the reality of my own sexuality and its desires; it is only a recognition that my sexual experience may not be something I can use to say something reliable about God as saying what I may get from the experience of reading Scripture. In other words, this suggests that claims about God that are warranted are determined not be an experience itself, but by what it is that determines the form and shape of my experiences in the first place. Or, to put it in Pauline terms, reliable knowledge about God is derived from experiences that are influenced by the Spirit, whereas faulty ideas about God is derived from my own fleshly experience.
In other words, the experience is only theologically reliable when the causal conditions of that experience are somehow the work or inspiration of God. Many Christians believe Scripture is inspired by God, so one can say that God via the reading of Scripture is a cause of our experience. Or, one could say that the Spirit influenced the formation of the Nicene tradition. However, we need not analyze things simply in terms of direct inspiration; I am not trying to derive a strong theology of revelation that excludes any and all possibilities of theology from below.2 My only point is to demonstrate the proposition that it is the nature of experience that makes it reliable. Thus, theological reflection entails contextualizing our own experiences, recognizing the causes and sources of the experience before determining its reliability and usefulness for the task of theology.
I would suggest at least four different, overlapping factors that impinge upon experience: attentional focus, cognitive patterns of processing, the wider context of experience, and the desires and purpose of the knowledge we derive. The attentional focus is essentially are epistemic sources; what is is we are paying attention. Is it reading a letter of Paul? Is it study of the patristics? Is it a meta-cognitive introspection, sensing my own thoughts, feelings, etc.? Pattern of processing relates to how it is our minds make sense of the sources. Our worldviews, the types of reasoning we have learned to use instinctively, etc. all impact how it is we make understand what is it we are paying attention to. Context relates to all the other things that are impacting and influencing my thoughts and feelings but my attention and focus in not on that. Hearing the Scripture read in the context of a community of believers who I share life with may alter the way I understand God through the text. Then, the desires and purposes of knowledge is, for the lack of a better term, the agendas that determine what type of results I am looking for. Commonly right now, people read the Bible on sexuality because they are trying to get knowledge on what it does or does not say on the topic, but someone reading the same passage who is not focused on that agenda may make sense of what is said differently.
Now certainly, this is not feasible for giving quick and easy instruction on theological method. It has a high level of complexity that could never hope to be exhausted in an easily understandable and digestible form. However, my point is to suggest that instead of labeling “experience” a source of theology, we should instead pay attention to the very nature of the experience and explain the conditions upon which experience provides reliable theological knowledge. In so doing, something important is done: it will unmask the arrogance of theologies that equate one’s own religious experience as somehow telling us something about God. While not exclusive to progressive theology, there are plenty of conservative/traditionalist minded people who think their thoughts exactly resemble God’s, many versions of progressive theology has that veiled arrogance about oneself: that my own experience is sufficient grounds to speak about God in a way that other people must respect and include. This arrogance goes beyond simply accepting what a person experiences, but that one is allowed to teach whatever one feels about anyone or anything else, including God, because of their own experience and it should not be challenged but instead should be allowed the same level credibility as anything else, regardless of the nature of my experiences in the first place. By moving towards recognizing the different types and sources of experience, including prominent Scripture reading, engaging with tradition, reasoning, and introspection, we would be more equipped to call certain experiences that are used for the basis of theology as self-centered navel-gazing, whether it be our own personality, our own culture, our own nation, etc. Beyond simply recognizing the reality of their own experience, culture, and nation, they find their attentional focus is on their own self, on the ideas of their own culture, on the values of their own nation, and it is this we would call the flesh and as having nothing reliable to say about the God who we believe to be revealed in Christ and the Spirit.