June 17, 2007

Revelation and Experience

Experience is always present. Does that seem self-evident? Perhaps so, yet when it comes to assigning a role to experience in the life of the church people seem to think it can be set to one side, as if being itself could be set to one side. Obviously, one has to be aware of one’s prejudices and one’s culture when seeking to understand the Scriptures. But the Scriptures themselves were formed and recorded by people through their own experiences of God at work in them — in a very few cases speaking directly to them. But, and this is important, speaking to them. Revelation is thus always revelation to — God does not speak into the void, but into human ears and hearts, by means of which God’s will is accomplished. (Isa 55.11) But because of the necessary human half of this transaction, the message is capable of being culturally, personally, and ethnically diluted, conformed, and enculturated; in short, experience, the necessary reciprocal to revelation, cannot be escaped. There is no absolute revelation unconditioned by human ears. All “culture,” including religious culture, is confected in the interaction between revelation and experience.

This has been recognized from time to time; for example, the church eventually came to recognize that the Scriptural mandate to slavery — an institution not only purported to be approved by God but in some cases commanded, and in many places in the Scriptures simply taken for granted as an essential element of human society — was to be undone not merely by human experience of the evils of slavery, nor by an appeal to the scant Scriptural passages that appear to cast slavery in even a slightly negative light (such as Philemon), but by the combination of the experience of the evils of slavery shedding light upon the neglected Scriptural commandment, the one that was there all along but not applied to this particular case: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For who would want to be treated as a slave.

I suggest that the same goes for the Scriptural texts against same-sexuality. It isn’t just that experience has given us examples of gay and lesbian people who are good and that therefore we should declare that homosexuality is good — that would indeed be a trivial misuse of experience. Rather it is that these good examples and experiences have given us cause to question the negative examples and experiences recorded in Scripture, and set them against the higher and eternal call to love — which while it too reflects human culture, embodies one that is universal and not restricted to one culture over against another.

This is why the Scripture cannot function as simply an ultimate authority outside of and apart from human experience — as Hooker said of reason, experience is a necessary implement in our understanding of Scripture, as much as it was a necessary element in its reception. The exercise of Scriptural authority must take place through the interpretation by and engagement of the church — reception continues to happen, not the revelation of new texts, but of new understandings of the texts that have been there for so long. The Scriptures themselves attest to this process as the prophets engage with the law; as Jesus sets one aspect of the law against another, asserting primacy of eternal principles over against temporary restrictions and allowances; and as the apostolic community further engages with the new possibilities of a broader reach to salvation than they had imagined possible; always referring back to interpret other Scriptures that no one would have thought of interpreting in that way until that moment — that moment illuminated by experience.

The Holy Spirit allows the church to see what was always there — for those with eyes to see. The church is always on that walk to Emmaus.

— Tobias Haller BSG


R said...

Hooker's ethical approach through reason, which, I certainly agree, cannot in any real way be divorced from experience; In addition to the references you make, I have found it helpful recently to look for the fruits of the Spirit, as listed in Paul's Letter to the Galatians 5:22-23.

These fruits are primarily experiential in nature, and must be discerned and felt in tangible ways by the community before they are identified and held up with thanksgiving.

This only adds to your wonderful reflection Tobias (and I hope doesn't detract from it!)

Thanks for a wonderful piece yet again.

Mark Diebel said...

I thought for a second you were going to talk about the necessary fact of experience involved in reading scripture itself and learning to read.

It is the "how do you read?" question writ large. There is a disconnect in my way of thinking between how I come to read scripture... come to interpret and read the words... listen to teachers as I was taught about reading... and those who seem to think we can avoid any reference to experience when we discuss theology.

Opening the book, attention to the sentence... patience and interest in the word and meaning... considering allusions... all this is the rich context of reading... and is embodied and carries through our senses.

Closed said...

Yes, I think this bit in the loop of experience being "read by" and at the same time interpretting Scripture afresh is what I was missing; that a prioritizing takes place of the Summary as dissonance between a prior understanding and an emerging understanding occurs. I was reflecting on this matter of hermeneutic and what a difference it makes to read a same-sex relationship through the lens of Sodom or through the lens of David and Jonathan.

What I find frustrating is that much if not most theologizing be it dogmatic (unfortunately because often heretical), moral, or what I would hope for ascetical with regard to same-sex relationships is entirely of the abstract and shows no points of having actually engaged with real couples and their lives, their experiences of God, etc. Some a priori interprets often with honestly naming that a priori hermeneutic, and the interpretation must be maintained even in the face of contrasting real lives. I also think there is another part to the story of chattel slavery, however, that is often ignored in this conversation, the fact that those enslaved interpretted Christianity and the Bible to their own situation in ways that were a rebuke to the majority and still are and their comings together as Church are no less than any other. Eucharistic communities were quite willing to treat them and their descendants poorly well into the 20th century. Such are a great challenge to a tendency in our tradition that speaks of "listening processes" rather than "engagement processes", the former suggesting 1) that those being listened to are somehow being "welcomed" when many of us have been Christians most of our lives so the "welcome" is reciprocal, 2) that only one organ in the equation is the active recipient and interpretter of the listening and is not itself perhaps in need of correction in terms of behaviors, ideas, etc. while the other is to be questioned in terms of behaviors, etc. At present, I would say that the Church is undergoing questioning of attitudes, behaviors, ideas, together and that applies not only to same-sex couples and oriented persons but to heterosexual members of the body.

June Butler said...

Tobias, you describe almost perfectly, the path I took to coming around to accept same-sexuality as a good. I could never have expressed it so elegantly, and I took twists and turns betwixt and between that slowed the process.

No, I was not always accepting. Mea culpa. But I did come round, more or less on my own, by reading the Scriptures. "On my own" is not quite right, because I believe that the Spirit of the living God was guiding me as I made my way through God's living word.