Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said we should do theology with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” While newspapers are no longer the dominant media source, his point is still quite valid. We need our experiences to properly discern God’s will. Yes, as we already established, we need the truth of Scripture and the solid foundation of Tradition, but we understand how to apply Scripture and Tradition by connecting them to our experience.
Incorporating experience into our discernment process is much more than merely deciding what we want to be true, or what we think Scripture says on a particular subject. Rather, it is adding the knowledge each of us accumulates to the mix, along with the stories and key moments that shape our lives. This allows us to ask good questions of our interpretation of Scripture and to rightly examine our experiences, allowing the Holy Spirit to use these sources to guide us in our beliefs and actions.
Some Cautions with Experience
Our experiences can be wrong, or at least, misinterpreted. We may think our view of the world is correct, but sometimes our lens is skewed and things are not exactly as they seem. This happens frequently on social media. We read posts or comments, convinced we understand what they mean, only to find out that we misread, or misinterpreted, the words we read. We may be sure that someone is angry with us, only to discover that is far from the truth. Of course, it can go the other way as well.
We also see this concern play out in bigger ways as posts are made by those we trust, and reposted by others declaring something to be true. We may be so sure of our source that we post them as well, only to fact check later and discover we are all in error. These near daily occurrences should give us caution when we are assessing our experiences. We must always be open to the truth that our view of our experiences could be wrong.
Our world is not the whole world. It is important to incorporate not only our own experience in our discernment process, but the perspectives of others, especially those who do not see things our way. This may be difficult at times, but the result is worth the effort.
As a pastor, I frequently have church members who will approach me on an issue saying, “Everyone feels this way.” When I press them on who they spoke with, we soon discover that “everybody” is only their family, or just their circle of friends. This does not necessarily mean that their perspective is wrong, but it does mean that it is not fully informed. Incorporating experience goes beyond our thoughts and stories, to include those of others.
Emotions can help and hurt our understanding. Our emotional experience can be a great blessing in discernment. How we feel about something can be a revelation in itself. If a path doesn’t feel right, we may need to be careful before we proceed, or if we feel positive about something, it may be the Holy Spirit encouraging us to move forward. Of course, our emotions can be shaped by things other than the Spirit. Our fears and frustrations can discourage us from that the right path, and our passions can lead us to places we never wanted, or intended to go. Sober judgement is certainly called for when we examine our emotions.
While there are some cautions to consider when we engage our experiences, there are many blessings as well.
Blessings of Experience
We learned it for a reason. Our life is more than just a series of random experiences. If we believe that, “the steps of a righteous person are ordered by the Lord,” (Psalm 37:23) then we must believe that our experiences have a God-ordained purpose. They shape us and our understanding to prepare us for future decisions and discernment. We should never discount our experiences. We may need to learn to rightly understand them, but they are a valuable gift from God.
Experience makes it personal. It is all too easy to have lofty thoughts and ideas, but the real “rubber meets the road” of the Christian life is understanding the impact of our theology and beliefs on our actions, on our witness for Christ, and on how we treat others. While the “What Would Jesus Do” movement often seemed to go a little overboard, the question is still of great importance. Knowing what we know from Scripture and Tradition, asking what God wants us to “do” with that insight central to our faith walk. It is all too easy to “know what is right” and yet, live wrongly.
Application helps us understand. I love to fly fish, and I love to read about fly fishing. I can assure you, there is an amazing difference between knowing how to fish, and fishing. All of the book learning is helpful, but putting it into practice teaches what no book ever could. Likewise, our experience of putting Scripture and Tradition into practice refines our understanding. Even our mistakes and failures help us better understand the truths we live by, and refine the way we put them into practice along our journey.
Scripture, Tradition, and experience all inform our discernment process. Tomorrow, we will see how God’s gift of reason helps us bring these sources together. Until then, seek God in your circumstances and discover what the Holy Spirit is saying to you through them.