Pet Peeve Correction

One of my pet peeves is popping up all over the place with General Convention right around the corner: experience as a criterion for theology. Let’s be real clear on what this is and what this isn’t.

Some Anglicans talk about Hooker’s stool, suggesting that theological reflection is equal parts Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. This is a modern construct. Hooker placed Scripture first as read through Tradition as aided by Reason.

Others talk about Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. This was labelled the Wesleyan Quadralateral at the Methodist seminary where I did my MDiv. To the best of my understanding–and I skipped all the Theology of Wesley classes–this too is a modern construct approximating something vaguely Wesleyan. My sense of what Wesley meant when he said “experience” is not individual experience but the Church’s collective experience of the Holy Spirit. Again, I’m not enough of a Wesleyan to know what scope of “Church” he meant–local, denominational body, global-in-this-age or the Church as the collected Body of Christ throughout all ages.

Why the distinction? Because if we’re gonna split hairs about stuff, let’s be precise in how we go about it. You cannot invoke Reason–or, actually, Scripture or Tradition–without personal experience being an aspect of it. How we think, perceive, and comprehend is all conditioned by our experience. Whatever we know of Scripture and Tradition is filtered through our experience of it, of the world, and of what we have experienced others teaching us. Furthermore, our knowledge and understanding of Scripture and Tradition is conditioned by Reason.

So let’s just lose the claim that Experience and Reason are being used by one side in this dispute and not the other, shall we? What it is perfectly fair to argue about is the place of Reason and its admixture of personal experience and of Experience especially on the local church and denominational levels.

That clarification having been made, you may return to your regularly scheduled feuds.

6 thoughts on “Pet Peeve Correction

  1. *Christopher

    This actually gets to a pet peeve of mine–the claim to unmediated experience. Just as with biblical fundamentalism or some aspects of the charismatic movement or some forms of (woowoo) mysticism (as opposed to Anglican mysticism which is always grounded in Common Prayer–a la Evelyn Underhill), its an attempt to make a claim for unmediated experience of the divine, this time by either making overreaching claims to personal experience of the Holy Spirit without discernment within the wider Body of fruits or by claiming that one can access the Scriptures or Tradition without the filters of one’s own life (which is to say one sees oneself as unbiased and perhaps even as God, for only God can be completely objective, but tends it seems to me to choose to be intersubjective). After all, I come to certain of the texts in quite different ways than a heterosexual person, seeing things differently, noticing things that others look over or finding texts liberative that others puzzle over. The same can be said for many cultural lenses. Which means that discernment in the Body as a whole always takes time, and has always been so. One of the main things I’m concerned about is how to incarnate the Gospel in my own cultural intersections, and that often means being in critical and constructive conversations with Scripture, Tradition, and the experiences of the wider Body. Matters get tricky when the wider Body is a majority type of person or culture and can choose or choose not to take into consideration the minority.

    So with regard to Tradition, I think we need to untangle some matters as Tradition has often been shaped with some voices sidelined which endangers catholicity and has often been more varied than some would like in their historical constructions. I think of black churches in this country, for example. Or women. Or the variety in fourth century patterns of worship. The Vincentian Rule, which Patristic Anglican seems to rely upon, is quite limited in its scope.

  2. *Christopher

    Dang it. I wanted to say that even mystical experiences such as visions and dreams are mediated through the constructions of our mind and body.

  3. Emily

    And one of my pet peeves, is that, on my extremely limited reading of Hooker, it seems obvious to me that his definition of reason includes “experience.” Which never seems to enter into the debate.

  4. D. C.

    Emily, I always thought our collective experience was a big component of Tradition as well as of Reason.

    As for individual experiences: Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite presumably had them, too.

  5. Marshall

    Derek, you certainly have a point. Unfortunately, I get the sense that many want to reject a phenomenological appreciation out of hand.

    Which leads me back to our sense of the Anglican Three-legged Stool or the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. What irks me in some ways more than misinterpretation of either Reason or Experience is the insistence of some that we can do theological reflection without including reasoned reflection on the experience of the People of God, both in individuals and in the accumulation of the community. If it were not for such reasoned reflection in its generation we would not have the Gospel of John. (I know, I know: John, like the other Gospels, was dictated through automatic writing….)

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