Theology in a Vacuum of Experience
I was talking with a friend the other day, and our conversation meandered to the topic of a group or perhaps category of pastors who, as my friend said, do “theology in a vacuum”. That is, they consider, preach, clarify, and elucidate on their theology based on their own thoughts and the thoughts and works of those in their cohort. I suppose we all do this to some extent, and it only makes sense to on some level, but this group seems to ignore 2,000 and more years of thought and wisdom, which seems foolhardy or arrogant.
But it got me thinking about those who do theology in a vacuum of experience (and I’ll note that many of these people also seem to fit into the category we were just talking about). There is a mentality among Evangelical Christians to make conclusions about God, about life, and about human nature and the soul based on their particular interpretation of Scripture and the culture and tradition in which they work. There’s nothing wrong with that except that I feel like it’s missing a key piece. Our conclusions, I believe, must also take into consideration our experiences.
This is not to say that we are to build an entire theology based solely on what we experience. That is insanity, doomed to failure, and another form of arrogance. However, if we do not take experiences into account, then what happens when our experience conflicts with our theology? If experience counts for nothing, then the only viable conclusion is that our experience is wrong. If our experience is wrong, then the only option is to fix your experience or make your experience change, but if you’ve based your theology without taking experience into consideration, then there is no guidance on how to change that experience. You’re sort of stuck.
The most common manifestation of this there is, I think, is the ideals of try-harder-ism. If you are experiencing (or not experiencing) something that your theology says you’re not supposed to (or are supposed to) experience, then you are doing something wrong. You must work harder at what you already know to do, and your experience will change. There is only so many times, however, that you can ram your head into a brick wall before you either injure yourself severely or realize that the wall isn’t going to give in to your skull.
Your theology says your experience isn’t supposed to happen, but it is. If your theology is to be based on reality and truth, then your theology must now take into consideration this experience. Your theology (i.e., understanding of God and his Creation, including you) must become more robust, more broad.
All theology should do this. If God is only transcendent (infinite Creator of the universe and beyond our comprehension), then our theology should be only externally imposed. If God is only immanent (present directly, very near), then our theology should only arise from our experience. But God is both. The Father is the Creator, and the Spirit lives within the Christian heart. Therefore, our understanding of God, life, and ourselves, must come from both external sources (Scripture, potentially tradition, science, etc.) and internal sources (personal and corporate experience), and those two sources must fit together – they must both be true.
To deny our experience as something that our theology must incorporate is to deny our humanity and the presence of the Spirit within us. So when God seems distant or close, when we feel ecstatic or depressed, when the Word seems dry or enlightening, is our theology robust enough to explain these things and give us guidance? Surely our theology is better than “stop that”, isn’t it?