Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Theological Resources: Experience This

On Theological Resources

We have only the God that is given us. That gospel comes in four ways, experience, reason, scripture, and tradition, only forces us to recognize our inability to get at God too easily. The word of God doesn’t come to us via telephone, but through a skein of veins at once separate and intertwining. As for me, myself, I grab experience first because it’s the one thing none of us can escape from, and it’s the one thing least subject to disputes concerning the machinations of authority. If one says, “God did this! This happened to me!” and tells the story honestly, another might say, “Well, that wasn’t God,” but one only need listen to them if their advice is fitting and helpful. No one has ultimate jurisdiction over God’s effect on you – whatever happens when the lawyers and priests and scribes get going on scripture and reason and tradition.

And it’s always my experiences of God that seem to inspire the most and cause the least rancor anyway. Perhaps, as a lay person, my experiences are more relatable. I understand, for example, about humiliating jobs and getting fired and feeling alone and helpless despite all my best efforts. I get it. I really do, because unlike celebrities, I understand myself and have in fact been there. And I’ve had just about every doubt a person might have. So I also understand about small moments of hope through that come through that endless bombardment of boredom and anxiety so that I can say “Here is God, God did this.” I try not to be random about it. I don’t waste people’s time. I mentioned getting fired because of the economic crisis and the general hopelessness and panic that everyone was feeling, and I wanted to think about how to work against that. But some experience of God is why we’re all there on a Sunday anyway, so why would anyone not talk about it? Maybe that means I’m part of some postmodern cult of narcissism – far be it from me to claim immunity from the times – but I hope it might mean I’m more like the people Jesus ministered to, who can’t help but tell the story. God did this! This is what happened to me!

This is my theological template for deliberation: the experience of transformation. The scriptures are not propositional truths or support for my argument but the stories of ancient experiences of God. This skews me toward the Old Testament and the Gospels and perhaps the Psalms, if I’m reading from the lectionary, though I try to tie them altogether if I can and not forget the Epistle entirely. But what disquiets me about my approach is that it is in fact so even-handed: Elijah going up to heaven in a chariot gets almost as much language as the resolution of my legal troubles and my church’s vote about its future mission. While I embrace the basic disrespect of the notion – irreverence not being generally the great mistake of the Church – one must believe that Scripture unfolds like a lotus of countless petals and can in many cases stand on its own. So I tend to compromise. Scripture gets the best of my attention, if not the overwhelming majority of it. And while word-by-word parsing of Scripture might not be my own theological flavor, I do try to let the Scripture flavor me. My experience is always mediated by and understood through the cloud of witnesses that have gone before.

I began blogging for my church with a history of the church itself, a decision that astonished me at the time, though I sought an Episcopal church in part because of their attention to the creeds and ancient churches. That decision was the shrewdest one I might have made, though it came from I know not where. But experiences of God did not stop with John sitting on Patmos, and didn’t just start up again with Martin Luther and taper off sometime after Wesley. This is my weakest area, and the most lamentable ignorance of my generation. We do not know the place that God has prepared for us and those who will come after. The world changes so fast that one can hardly imagine what Christians a hundred years ago saw and felt when they lifted their eyes unto the hills. Yet God didn’t just do this to me. God’s doing it to us, through time.

I understand this. It is an intellectual conclusion. Yet my reason is at once haphazard and the most pervasive. Above all, I try to understand my experiences of God; I hold these things inside my heart. And I want to teach theology. I minored in philosophy and read the stuff for fun. Yet I’ve never taken a class in logic and am lost at anything more complicated mathematically than a Venn diagram. Reason is obviously a gift we’ve been given, but I suppose I tend to see it less as a means of revelation itself and more of a tool we have to discern precisely what experience has revealed. It’s always there. It’s always plugging away, always trying to pull it all together and always testing all things. While our experiences of God might indeed, and I would say should, surpass reason, I know of no indication that they would ever contradict it. And yes, we must understand, so that we might confess our belief as best we can, individually and corporately. This is what’s happening to us, and this is what it means.

The truth is paradoxical: a writer by training, I abhor cliché and have already grown bored with the kind of sermons I’ve been giving. Yet even if I accepted that self-talk is uninteresting and unattractive, I could not stop doing it, not because I’m necessarily self-important but because there are no other means available. I am everywhere I go. I must be the person saying everything I speak. Thus I make my best self present in the pulpit, my best words in my mouth when I address God – as who could not? So I doubt that it’s the prolific presentation of self that makes the errors of our age so abhorrent. It’s that people are so careless about the selves that they present. They do not consider, and so are unaware of transformation – in fact they might not experience it. But if one is contemplating the experience of God in oneself and in one’s people and pronouncing the effect – I can walk! I can see! – then the gospel in our age, or perhaps the gospel in my age, is neither solemn pronouncement nor angry jeremiad but the good news of the continuing alteration of hearts, indeed, of our entire selves, by the acts of a living God unfolding for everyone as God always has, and always will.

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