Exposition on Experience
Having had a number of insightful conversations in the last week, I felt compelled to put in words a brief summary about our present obsession with experience. Stated another way, I want to be critical of our idolization of experience while mindfully against the complete negation of experience.
In post-modern thinking, experience and upbringing are the influential tools to understanding why an individual has 1) become the person they are and 2) believes the things they believe. In so far as this remains the final purpose, these are helpful tools to understand each other and communicate with one another — postmodernism is friend not foe.
One of the major problems associated with postmodernism is its application to pluralism. Pluralism's generic denial of absolute truth goes hand in hand towards destruction with a postmodern foundation. Together they attempt to explain truth through subject experience. But there is something more nefarious than saying everyone is right based upon their experience. Humanity cannot endure genuine pluralism, but we refuse to let go of our exaltation of experience. This nefariously confused perspective argues for objective truths on the basis of experience. In our culture. experience has become the de facto proof or conclusion to an argument.
The beauty of this confusion is that experience can hardly be scientifically measured or refuted. When I person states "this is how I feel" or "this is what I felt" it must be accepted without question. Of course, if historical data supports that an individual's story does not match up with reality (paging Brian Williams) our society will rip venomously into an individual. Lying about your experience has become a routine but unforgivable sin. The potential power of de facto experience is too tempting and we succumb to aggrandizing our experience.
The most common application of this de facto experience is to supplant the value of a people or people group in a socio-political sense. Pro-choicers practice this when they argue that only individuals with uteruses should decide laws on "a woman's body." The argument is flawless — men don't have the proper experience and thus are inherently wrong. Bernie Sanders, a white man, practices this when he claim "when you're white, you don't know what it's like" (this was a recent debate quote) — the rich could never possibly understand the poor and thus don't seek to help them. The confusion of how Sanders knows what he doesn't know is mind boggling. But few will see the problem because experience is the final arbiter.
This type of thinking is nefarious in all directions. I have a co-worker who was harassed as a child for "not being black enough" by other black children. The memories are burned into his mind and have left a sore spot — you don't have the proper experience and thus are less <insert group> than me. We see this practiced is less nefarious ways when older individuals claim experience as the sole reason someone younger than them is inferior or misinformed. Experience reigns supreme and I indict Good Will Hunting for promoting it so beautifully.
It should be obvious that experience itself is rather incapable of becoming an indicator of objective truth. There is no such homogeneous experience. Individuals approach experiences from different positions and with different mindsets. The outcomes are naturally different. Thus as a society, we cannot let experience be the de facto conclusion without ultimately having to turn on one another and make even more segregating distinctions — e.g. see how feminists respond to pro-life women or recent outrage that transgender Caitlyn Jenner would support Ted Cruz. When experience becomes the standard, non-homogeneous experiences are the marker of an inferior person. It is experiential fundamentalism.
The problem for the church arises not in identifying the foolishness of this experiential fundamentalism but plotting a path forward. People's experiences are important things. They truly do make us into the people we are. And when we love people, we are not loving a set of propositions or a static representation of a person but their entire story — their history. Sometimes, the church errors on the side of reducing people to their beliefs and ideology — not surprising given Christianity is a propositionally-confessional religion. We have a tendency to focus on people's position and not their travel record. But to make light of (or mock) people's experience is to devalue an individual. We become no better than the experiential fundamentalist. We must avoid de facto experience on one hand (which devalues non-homogeneous experience) and rejection of non-orthopraxy experience on the other.
For the church, the gospel will bring us into contact with people who have dark histories. These contacts will cover a vast range of purposes and intents. The church must state that experience is neither the standard nor irrelevant. We can neither bow to experience nor deny its existence.