By Larry Duggins
Thoughts on Our Theological Task #9
In our theological task, we follow Wesley’s practice of examining experience, both individual and corporate, for confirmations of the realities of God’s grace attested in Scripture. Our experience interacts with Scripture. We read Scripture in light of the conditions and events that help shape who we are, and we interpret our experience in terms of Scripture. All religious experience affects all human experience; all human experience affects our understanding of religious experience. On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian witness as our own. Wesley described faith and its assurance as “a sure trust and confidence” in the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and a steadfast hope of all good things to be received at God’s hand. Such assurance is God’s gracious gift through the witness of the Holy Spirit. This “new life in Christ” is what we as United Methodists mean when we speak of “Christian experience.” Christian experience gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. It confirms the biblical message for our present. It illumines our understanding of God and creation and motivates us to make sensitive moral judgments. Although profoundly personal, Christian experience is also corporate; our theological task is informed by the experience of the church and by the common experiences of all humanity. In our attempts to understand the biblical message, we recognize that God’s gift of liberating love embraces the whole of creation. Some facets of human experience tax our theological understanding. Many of God’s people live in terror, hunger, loneliness, and degradation. Everyday experiences of birth and death, of growth and life in the created world, and an awareness of wider social relations also belong to serious theological reflection. A new awareness of such experiences can inform our appropriation of scriptural truths and sharpen our appreciation of the good news of the kingdom of God. As a source for theological reflection, experience, like tradition, is richly varied, challenging our efforts to put into words the totality of the promises of the gospel. We interpret experience in the light of scriptural norms, just as our experience informs our reading of the biblical message. In this respect, Scripture remains central in our efforts to be faithful in making our Christian witness."
― from "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016"
Our life experience is entwined with our Christian experience. The fact that the Holy Spirit lives inside us shifts our entire perspective—Paul says it beautifully in Galatians 2:20 when he says that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives within him. Lived Christian experience changes the way we see scripture and the world around us. Our inner voice works with us to discern right from wrong.
The internal presence of the Spirit helps us to see the world differently. We interpret our life experiences, whether good or bad, through our understanding of Christ as Emmanuel—God with us. We can be assured of God’s real presence in our lives, and we can struggle to understand the events of our lives through that lens. As we learn to see with new eyes, we can look out into the world around us to see the places and people God calls us to serve. We can see pain and hopelessness more acutely, because we can feel the presence of God in its midst. Experience calls us to feel, and to act on those feelings, when they expose pain and injustice in the world. Jesus taught us to love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and it is through our experience that our hearts love. Experience guides us through heartbreak, and also guides us through the “heart strangely warmed.”