Basing Theology on Experience Pt 2 - Grace

Monday, November 15, 2010

I recently blogged about Basing Theology on Experience. Shortly after writing that I got an email from a reader asking me what I thought of the charismatic movement. They raised a number of important questions, but it all really boiled down to this one:

"But the core of it all - for me it seems that the charismatic movement from its beginning has lead people to believe in an authoritarian God. A God who comes with force, who overpowers you etc. Where as in Jesus I see a very different approach."

I think this raises a very important point: when speaking about "basing theology on experience" that needs a qualifier. I should say basing theology on the experience of grace. Grace is the central narrative of the New Testament, and it is also the lens though which Jesus and the authors of the NT interpreted the Old Testament. Grace is what characterized the entire ministry of Jesus to the sick and the sinner. Grace is what turned a violent Saul into the Chirst following apostle Paul. Miss grace and you miss everything.

The gospels tell a beautiful story of a "sinful woman" who washes Jesus' feet with her tears and pours a jar of alabaster perfume over them. The Pharasees are shocked at this display. But Jesus says "those who are forgiven little, love little" (Lk 7:4). From that let me make a bold assertion: Those who do not know grace, cannot properly understand the Bible. Those who have experienced grace little, understand the Bible little.

On the other hand, if we have experienced grace - that is, if we have known God's amazing grace in the middle of all of our brokenness, darkness, and hurt, that unearned wonderful love completely changes us. It sends us to our knees, it melts our hearts. Such a lived experience of grace is absolutely essential to proper theology. Truth to be understood, must be lived. We need to come to the text as those who know grace and have been transformed by it. Otherwise we may miss its central point. We see this in the story of Paul who before his encounter with Jesus has in fact completely misread the narrative of Scripture and as a result was opposing the church. When he was encountered by grace, this changed his whole outlook, including how he read the Bible.

This experience of God's grace also needs to be how we judge our own religious experiences and interactions with others. Are these demonstrating grace? Are we encountering people with God's transforming love? Is that the main focus of what we do? When charismatics focus more on the manifestation of gifts than then do on the purpose of a gift which is to show love, then I think they miss grace. I was raised charismatic, and still consider myself to be charismatic, so I know that church (it's good parts and bad parts) quite well. I've been in services that get really hyped up and freaky. I've seen many pastors who are on power trips. I've also seen us evangelicals focus on morals and "right and wrong" in a really unloving combative way when what we should be doing is treating others with the same mercy we so desperately need. In each of these grace gets pushed out of the way when it should be the very center of what we do and who we are.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:1-8a)

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At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you become love,... you're relieved. And you wish anyone well. And You also know that God, being by far greater than you, loves infinitely more. So you love them, and God loves them. But they don't love either you, themselves, or God. You also know that your escape was possible, and you had many sins AND addictions, but you were both forgiven AND delivered from them: and since you're not any more special than anyone else, you know that nothing's keeping them from doing the same. So, you know that they lock themselves in there. But you love them because you can't help it, and being dispassioned there's NO jealousy or envy or haterd or anger at them for not responding to your love and to God's love. So you just love. And you're free and happy. Blissful, but not in an ignorant way. You respond to their evil and close-heartedness with love and open-heartedness, and you feel no pain of rejection. (I don't know why, all I know is you don't, and you can't force those feelings on yourself either: it's just like you can't make your tongue feel salty when you're eating sugar: it's impossible -- almost at a "physical" level). So just don't worry about it, ok? The love that flows from God can love without hurt AND without passion (yet very powerfully, stronger than any sentiment, no matter how pure and holy and uplifting different than it [ie, agape]) anyone who's not only not responding to it, but even responds back by hatred. Again, I don't know "why", it's just the way this love is.

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When does the Orthodox person begin its (conscious) relationship with God? When it wants to. Since it becomes self-conscious. Grannys and mommies tell us about Jesus, good and evil, sin and shame, repentance and forgiveness. That Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are One God, and that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins. We look at icons on the wall and wonder if the holy-looking people pictured there would do the same things we do... etc.

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with your first blog, I disagree with you here. Let me say first that I'm not a charismatic; though the concept of God "taking over" a person who requests it is not itself unbiblical (think, for example, of Pentecost). Here you're placing one element of experience (grace) over another; this is very epistemologically flawed, however.

If we're taking experience to be the foundation of a thing (such as theology), then we must take in to account experience as a whole in doing so. In order to justify putting grace over other types of experience, you appeal to the "central narrative" of the Bible--which is, indeed, grace. But, by making this maneuver, you're putting the central narrative of the Bible as more theologically fundamental than experience, and, therefore, basing your theology ultimately off of the Bible! If one is to maintain a coherent epistemology of religious experience--such as advocated by Kai-Man Kwan--one must allow for a seamless web of experience to all be taken as fundamental.

How, then, should one properly respond to the charge that experience may dictate an authoritarian God? It is known that one can cast God into one's own image of God, and then have an experience with this perception. However, a veridical perception of God is unmistakable. One knows without a shadow of a doubt that one has truly experienced God; God's light of love shines into the deepest recesses of our souls, exposing our darkest secrets and responding to them in unconditional love. With this experience, we truly begin to enjoy new life thanks to God.

But an aspect of basing theology on experience--and, perhaps, the best way to respond to the charge that this epistemology could lead to an authoritarian conception of God--is that only the one that had this experience knows whether or not it is veridical--that is, it actually came from God. Therefore, we are not required in the slightest to base our theology off of someone else's experience, as only them and God know whether their experience is true. We can continue to base our theology off of the true grace that we have experienced, and live in the light of that grace.

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Meta,

Let me first note where we are agreeing. We both agree that the central narrative of the Bible is grace. We also agree that our experience of God should be one of grace, as opposed to an angry authoritarian image of God. So with that vital common ground in mind, here’s where we are disagreeing:

1) When you argue that I am putting “the Bible as more theologically fundamental than experience” you seem to be juxtaposing an experiential approach with a biblical one. This is however not what I am doing. Instead I am proposing that the Bible itself is a witness to a particular experience of God. This begins with Jesus’ experience of the Father which reveals God to us. That same image of “God in Christ” was experienced by the disciples through the Spirit, which they bear witness to in Scripture. Finally, we too through the new birth can know that same Spirit of Christ experientially. So there is no Bible OR experience because the Bible is a record of expereince.

In our lives people experience God, and likewise the Bible records people’s experiences with God. What I am claiming is that there is a RIGHT way to experience God (which Paul calls “grace” and which we see in Jesus' experience of God), and there is a likewise a WRONG way (what Paul calls “law” which "leads to death"). This brings me to my second point:

2) You refer to the experience of grace as “vertical,” implying that it is genuinely from God, as opposed to an authoritarian experience which you call “horizontal” implying it is our false human projection. From this you imply that it is clear that grace is the correct understanding of God. I agree that it is. However, since this false inner judge of ours masquerades as God, it is far from obvious to many people that this angry voice they hear is not in fact God. Church history is filled with people who have a hurtful image of God, and you will also frequently hear preachers affirm that image of an angry God as right. They will appeal to both one’s experience (feelings of self-loathing and shame) and to Scripture to back this up. Jesus says that the devil “masquerades as an angel of light”.

So it is possible to read the Bible and arrive at a hurtful grace-less picture of God, and it is possible also to look to our experience and arrive at a hurtful grace-less picture of God too. So I am saying that I place grace above Scripture, and above experience as the foundational bedrock. I begin with grace, that is I begin with who Jesus is as revealed in his character and actions as my starting point and baseline. This is not a deduction, it is a statement of faith, it is an act of trust. I do it because I have known grace and it has turned me around, changed me, transformed me, remade me. This is perhaps what you refer to when you speak of a “vertical” experience of a gracious God as being “unmistakable” because “God's light of love shines into the deepest recesses of our souls, exposing our darkest secrets and responding to them in unconditional love.” From that life-changing transformational encounter with grace, I come to trust that gracious-One, and therefore begin right there, with Jesus Christ as my epistemological center. Jesus is the guide to all exegesis, and to all experience (i.e. the discerning of spirits). If our experience of God looks like Jesus it is right. If it does not, it is wrong.

At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A lot to ponder. If I care to argue, I'll post another comment, but I think you've sufficiently answered my concerns. I especially appreciate your note that the Bible is a record of experience rather than just a collection of propositions (as I've been brought up being taught, more or less); I think that is a beautiful way to look at the Bible.

A note, though, I said that a real experience of God was "veridical," not "vertical." At least in the philosophical language I'm used to, a veridical perception means a to perceive a reality as it truly is; I wasn't referencing anything about dimensions, and I never actually said horizontal, haha. Sorry for any confusion. That gave me a laugh, though.

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

LOL, that is pretty funny! Luckily, I interpreted "vertical" (which I must admit seemed like an odd term to me, but I thought I'd just run with it) to mean "genuine/true" so it ended up meaning the same as "veridical" anyway. So amazingly, I don't think much got lost in translation there, despite my blunder.


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