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Not putting it all down to experience

11 March 2016

Sarah Coakley analyses “Experience” as a source of theological truth

Godong/Robert Harding/Superstock

Experiential: a Pentecostal Sunday service in Missessinto, Benin, West Africa

Experiential: a Pentecostal Sunday service in Missessinto, Benin, West Africa

THE appeal to “experience” as a means of judging theological truth, or as a claim to special spiritual authority, has been an important part of the history of Christian thought.

It has been important, not only because it goes back to the earliest disciples (“We have seen the Lord”), but because there is often political as well as theological freightage in such an appeal: an established religious presumption or a dogma that is taken to rest on revelation may be augmented, or queried, by an appeal to experience.

Further, the institutional power of the State or the Church can itself be resisted. The second-century Montanist movement — one of the first examples of a prophetic, Charismatic manifestation, centred in Phrygia (part of what is now Turkey) — is an early example of both these traits.

The freedom of the Holy Spirit to “blow where it wills” (John 3.8) has provided the theological legitimacy of such movements, hence the historic connection between pneumatology and “experiential” appeals. None the less, the problem of establishing agreed criteria for “testing the spirit” remains.

There is an inherent ambiguity here, because what the generic term “experience” means in different contexts and usages is often hard to clarify. Care must always be taken to probe what we mean by this word as a prelude to theological assessment.

At one level, defining “experience” is simple, since everything that happens to us is an experience, provided we are conscious and able to acknowledge it.

But it is only in certain contexts that Christians appeal to “personal experience” to make a theological point with special emphasis, or in order to attempt to validate a proposition that might be contentious.

At that point, the critical issue is what context, use, and intention inform any such appeal to experience, and this raises the further question of how these may be assessed. There is no one story of how this task has been approached in Christian history.

Yet there is a dialectical rule — an exploration of opposing positions — that tends to repeat itself: appealing to experience as a sole source of authority is inherently question-begging, and requires critical testing. On the other hand, an absence of experiential animation leaves faith vapid and limp.

Over this we may lay an insight that came only with the birth of the “sociology of religion” in the early 20th century: as Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch taught, special appeals to experience are more often the product of the sect than of the institutional Church.


IN EARLIEST Christianity, the word “experience” is not often used. Instead, the use of experience to legitimise a belief is implied in relation to key formative events, especially in the book of Acts: the encounter with the risen Christ; the conversion of Paul, and of other followers of the “Way”; the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and the manifest reception of the Spirit as a sign of authentic Christian baptism.

In the early Christian centuries there begins to be a discernible difference between Latin- and Greek-speaking writers on appeals to experience. Augustine’s Confessions puts autobiographical reflection (and a turn inwards to find God) on an unforgettable platform of significance for the West.

But Augustine does not single out the category of experience as such, whereas texts such as the pseudo-Macarian homilies (written on the eastern edges of the Empire, and in some tension with episcopal authority and the sacramental system) make a special point of calling in an “experience” of the Spirit as decisive.

In contrast, the mainstream Greek patristic tradition remains coy or allusive about experiential matters, by and large avoiding the autobiographical mode.

Already, then, we begin to see the social and political significance of an experiential appeal: where a structured ecclesiastical hierarchy dominates, reforming elements (particularly those devoted to deep prayer) may revolt by employing such a tactic.

The 11th-century Byzantine monk Simeon the New Theologian is one such controversial exemplar in the East. In the later medieval West, autobiographical appeals to special, direct revelation became a particular genre of female mystical writing (since scholastic learning was restricted to men). This could attract adulation and inquisitional attack in equal measure (Julian of Norwich was adulated, for example, though she also provoked theological discussion; Marguerite Porete was put to death).


IT is often argued that the Christian problem of appeals to experience only really emerged in the “modern” period in the West as, first, Protestantism’s central appeal to justification by faith queried the power of the papacy, and then modern rational philosophy queried the status of even Protestant doctrine — and especially its appeal to sola scriptura.

In fact, the early-modern and modern periods in Europe manifest a fascinating paradox on the issue of the authority of religious (or sometimes “mystical”) experience. It was a time of unparalleled appeal to such new experiential authority. Both Luther and Teresa of Avila witness this same trait.

Parallel to this, however, was the emergence of critical modern philosophy, which came to be as sceptical of “experientialism” as it was of institutional ecclesial authoritarianism.

By the 18th century in Europe and America, this paradox was at its height: explosions of new forms of Protestant Christianity explicitly appealing to experience (the “Quakers”, the “Great Awakening”, the “Methodist” movement) were precisely accompanied by rational philosophical attempts to constrain and chasten them. John Locke’s critique of “enthusiasm”, understood as the antithesis of rational religion, was to remain the locus classicus here, along with David Hume’s sceptical assessment of all religious gullibility.

One might argue, then, that these two phenomena, “experientialism” v. rational critique, form two sides of the modern dilemma about religious experience. At stake was the fundamental ordering of forms of authority, and how to employ them in relation to any direct individual appeal to experience: scripture, tradition/dogma, ecclesiastical power (whether “established” or not), and reason/philosophy could all be applied as means of “testing the spirits”. But the ordering of these appeals was changing as modern, secular thinking made its appearance.


IN THE 20th century, a new set of paradoxes emerged, and we may say that contemporary theology still struggles with these. On the one hand, there arose a propulsion to isolate religious experience as a “psychological” phenomenon, and thus give it a new, trans-religious, truth-bearing force. William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1901) set this tone, and elements within late 20th-century “analytic philosophy of religion” later enthusiastically followed.

At the same time, and for quite different reasons, “contextual” theologies (feminist, black, liberationist) used their own experience as a powerful tool of critique against dominating ecclesiastical hierarchies.

To complicate matters further, a barrage of new criticisms of the appeal to experience came to the fore in late 20th-century mainstream Protestantism, especially under the influence of Karl Barth. According to Barth, human experience could provide no revelatory matrix, which was alone to be found in Christ,

Moreover, the idea of a private inner self which might receive and validate such experience was rendered suspect by the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, with its emphasis on communal linguistic conventions and rules.

Some leading Roman Catholic theologians, also influenced by Wittgenstein, were equally sceptical about “high-point” experiences of the William James sort: these, they argued, failed to illuminate the special subtlety of (“dark”) contemplative prayer, and falsely isolated “spirituality” from ecclesial authority.


THE contemporary lessons that may be learned from this brief historical survey, especially for an Anglican readership, are these. In Richard Hooker’s classic formulation, English Protestantism gives primary authority to scripture, but always as mediated through the witness of the “rational saints” of tradition in any generation; for Hooker, reason and tradition are tightly wound.

But, as such, the received experience of these authorities is also taken for granted, though cast under suspicion if it becomes isolated from them — just as an appeal to the Spirit, if isolated from the Trinity as a whole, suggests doctrinal heterodoxy. Any naive, experiential infallibilism is thereby rendered suspect.

Yet any deadened, institutional passivity must be challenged equally . A Church that represses either the power of the Spirit or of prophetic, rational critique is a Church in trouble. Thus the rhetoric of “experience” is always one that must be examined with critical interest rather than ignored.


The Revd Canon Sarah Coakley is the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Murray Edwards College. The first volume of her four-volume systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay ‘On the Trinity’ was published by CUP in 2013.

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