What is the Relationship between Experience and Revelation?

There’s been some recent discussion on Catholic blogs about the relevance of personal experience in conversations about how the Church can provide community and pastoral care to gay and lesbian Catholics who are seeking to be faithful to Church teaching. In order to answer this specific question, it’s worth examining the relationship between revelation and experience more generally.

John Paul II

The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel. In a footnote to the General Audience of September 26, 1979, he wrote:

When we speak here about the relationship between “experience” and “revelation,” indeed about a surprising convergence between them, we only wish to observe that man, in his present state of existence in the body, experiences many limits, sufferings, passions, weaknesses, and finally death itself, which relates his existence at the same time to another and different state or dimension. When St. Paul speaks about the “redemption of the body,” he speaks with the language of revelation; experience is not, in fact, able to grasp this content or rather reality. At the same time, within this content as a whole, the author of Romans 8:23 takes up everything that is offered to him, to him as much as in some way to every man (independent of his relationship with revelation), through the experience of human existence, which is an existence in the body.

We therefore have the right to speak about the relationship between experience and revelation; in fact, we have the right to raise the issue of their relation to each other, even if many think that a line of total antithesis and radical antinomy passes between them. This line, in their opinion, must certainly be drawn between faith and science, between theology and philosophy. In formulating this point of view, they consider quite abstract concepts rather than the human person as a living subject.

Simply having experience with a particular aspect of human life is not, in itself, enough to be able to understand that area of human life in light of the Gospel. However, as the Pope stresses, we have a right to bring revelation and experience into relationship with each other. It is right, in trying to understand the Gospel, to do so in conversation between the “experience” of the human person as a living subject and the “revelation” God has entrusted to the the Church.

Of course, there are many ways of understanding the relationship between the two. In the modern context, many think that experience trumps revelation: we should only accept as “revelation” that which makes sense in light of our experiences. But this doesn’t bring “revelation” and “experience” into a relationship with each other at all: it merely dismisses revelation as unimportant in comparison with individual experience.

This is also not the Christian view. One of the first things experience teaches is its own unreliability. We are fallen creatures, easily led astray. Even the best of us make many mistakes along the way, and the tree of human wisdom is all too often planted in the soil of regret for the unwise decisions of the past. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis wrote:

The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centred than it was. For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. To have embraced so many false Florimels is no matter for boasting: it is fools, they say, who learn by experience. But since they do at least learn, let a fool bring his experience into the common stock that wiser men profit by it.

Those who believe God does not exist, or who do not believe He has revealed Himself to us, must work out their own answers for the “human propensity to ‘foul’ things up.” For those of us who believe God has spoken, however, revelation provides an indispensable guide to salvation, a necessary supplement to experience.

Alasdair MacIntyre argued:

[M]an is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

If our own stories—which are made out of our experiences—only make sense within a larger story, then to be a Christian is to believe that the larger story that frames my own story is the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption through suffering revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

All of the writers at Spiritual Friendship seek to understand our own experience by reading our own story in light of God’s story, as revealed in Scripture and interpreted in the Christian tradition. In order to reflect more deeply on the Christian story that gives life to our own experience, many of us have gone to graduate school for advanced study in philosophy and theology. As far as I know, there is no other group of writers who combine both deep academic formation in the Christian tradition and long personal reflection on their experience of being attracted to the same sex in light of that tradition.

In several posts to follow, I will discuss in more depth how Spiritual Friendship explores the relationship between revelation and experience in a way that is solidly within the Christian tradition. Before doing that, however, it is important simply to establish that the conversation is necessary: neither naïve trust in experience, nor an approach that makes revelation simply a repository of abstract rules is enough. John Paul II describes God’s revelation as an appeal addressed to the human heart, an appeal which reveals the heart to itself, and in doing so, reveals its deepest desires.

23 thoughts on “What is the Relationship between Experience and Revelation?

  1. Pingback: Afternoon coffee 2015-08-31 – God in a box and experience-and-revelation | Mangy Dog

  2. This appears to be a fool’s errand. If, in the end, human experience is unreliable, then any revelation no matter how pristine and infallible, becomes similarly unreliable as the only means to encounter it is through the same, fallible human experience. If every sight, sound, smell, taste and texture is ultimately suspect, and the thoughts by which we process these experiences is fallen, then there can be no culpability and, therefore, no moral agency.

    • Irksome,

      All that this means is that you can’t rely on your own experience to determine what’s right or wrong. But you can rely on the experience and teach of the Church.
      Even in science you need the kin eye of others to determine us you got it right. Experiments must be reproducible and the scientific community must be able to recreate whatever observation you made. Otherwise you can’t rely on your own scientific determination.

      • Except, science begins with the presumption that the scientist’s experience of any given experiment will be the same for another scientist if there is anything substantive to the observation. Here, we lack even that. If humanity’s experience of objective phenomena is unreliable, then it doesn’t matter that the Church’s experience is reliable. Humanity has no way to access the Church’s experience outside of fallen, fallible, unreliable human experience. It doesn’t even matter that human experience in the realm of morality is reproducible even by a majority since Truth is objective, not the product of consensus.

        The project of trying to reconcile human experience with divine revelation is therefore flawed on its own terms. There can be no marriage between the two; you must choose.

  3. What irksome said, plus I have trouble understanding your definition of Revelation. Its purpose is traditionally defined as spelling out truths that would otherwise pass our understanding or ability to perceive… it cannot, by definition, be ‘experienced,’ or verified, for that matter. If it could, why would we need it?

  4. We are not talking about humanity’s experience. We are talking about any given individual’s experience.

    Ultimetly all comes down on where to place your trust. I can affirm I don’t understand quantum physics neither have I “experience it” (in the sense of having done experiments to prove its postulates). But I “trust” the scientists’ word and work. I must because I really don’t get it nor do I know it experimentally. When it comes to moral teaching I have an advantage: I have experience Chist and I definetly trust Him. He points to the Church so I also trust the Church which points back to Christ. So in fact I have more experiential insight into the moral realm than o have of quantum physics.

    • But, in order to place your trust anywhere with conviction, you have to rely on some kind of past experience in order to substantiate the trust. Otherwise, it’s merely arbitrary.

      • Trust in anything means we somehow experience it. Yes. You are right. But, again, it is not my individual experience that matters. Rather, the experience of the Church (in the case of Revelation) and the experience of (most of) humanity (in the case of science).

        We can’t fully grasp Revelation in its entirety, but the Church can teach about it without error. And yes, we will eventually fully know.

        I can’t fully grasp Science in its entirety, but the Scientific Community can teach it. Even this will be understood (known) by all eventually.

  5. But it is not linear. It is like a circle: You experience Christ because of the Church’s proclamation and discipleship: the Church’s witnessing to Christ. Then in turn Christ brings you back to the Church. It’s like a mirror. This is why the Church is the Body of Christ.

    In regards to science one puts trust in the scientist because of the universal agreement that they are trustworthy (of course with exceptions like always).

    PS: Sorry about my (lack of) English… plus I type from my phone and these are challenges for me.

  6. The C.S. Lewis quote is gold to pretty much anyone who’s ever been human.

    To be more serious: Gracious and useful post. (Jas 3:18)
    God bless you. (y’all!)

  7. I don’t know if it is necessary to refute another person’s experience by denying what they feel or discrediting what is real to them. Instead if one is a Christian then your reality is in the present day already bound up in Christ and what he is trying to accomplish in you. You can’t help but experience Him. 🙂

    • ….in other words it is important that we nurture the revelation of Christ in each persons life rather than trying to discount it or qualify it. I think that is what causes cognitive dissonance when we claim our experience as truth over someone else’s.

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