Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tobias Haller on Experience As A Theological Source

It has become abundantly clear to me that the legitimacy of experience as a source of authority is one of the dividing lines between those who question the sinfulness of same sex relationships and those who do not. I have posted on experience as a relevant source of authority in several posts (here, here and here, for example), and recently discussed the views of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who used experience as a key basis by which he comes to the conclusion that same sex relationships are not sinful.

Now Father Tobias Haller, in his usual fashion, has done the best job I have seen of capturing the argument that experience is a legitimate basis of authority. Put, most simply, his argument is that if you believe in revelation, you should accept experience as a legitimate source of authority:

Experience is always present. Does that seem self-evident? Perhaps so, yet when it comes to assigning a role to experience in the life of the church people seem to think it can be set to one side, as if being itself could be set to one side. Obviously, one has to be aware of one’s prejudices and one’s culture when seeking to understand the Scriptures. But the Scriptures themselves were formed and recorded by people through their own experiences of God at work in them — in a very few cases speaking directly to them. But, and this is important, speaking to them. Revelation is thus always revelation to — God does not speak into the void, but into human ears and hearts, by means of which God’s will is accomplished. (Isa 55.11) But because of the necessary human half of this transaction, the message is capable of being culturally, personally, and ethnically diluted, conformed, and enculturated; in short, experience, the necessary reciprocal to revelation, cannot be escaped. There is no absolute revelation unconditioned by human ears. All “culture,” including religious culture, is confected in the interaction between revelation and experience.

This has been recognized from time to time; for example, the church eventually came to recognize that the Scriptural mandate to slavery — an institution not only purported to be approved by God but in some cases commanded, and in many places in the Scriptures simply taken for granted as an essential element of human society — was to be undone not merely by human experience of the evils of slavery, nor by an appeal to the scant Scriptural passages that appear to cast slavery in even a slightly negative light (such as Philemon), but by the combination of the experience of the evils of slavery shedding light upon the neglected Scriptural commandment, the one that was there all along but not applied to this particular case: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For who would want to be treated as a slave.

I suggest that the same goes for the Scriptural texts against same-sexuality. It isn’t just that experience has given us examples of gay and lesbian people who are good and that therefore we should declare that homosexuality is good — that would indeed be a trivial misuse of experience. Rather it is that these good examples and experiences have given us cause to question the negative examples and experiences recorded in Scripture, and set them against the higher and eternal call to love — which while it too reflects human culture, embodies one that is universal and not restricted to one culture over against another.

This is why the Scripture cannot function as simply an ultimate authority outside of and apart from human experience — as Hooker said of reason, experience is a necessary implement in our understanding of Scripture, as much as it was a necessary element in its reception. The exercise of Scriptural authority must take place through the interpretation by and engagement of the church — reception continues to happen, not the revelation of new texts, but of new understandings of the texts that have been there for so long. The Scriptures themselves attest to this process as the prophets engage with the law; as Jesus sets one aspect of the law against another, asserting primacy of eternal principles over against temporary restrictions and allowances; and as the apostolic community further engages with the new possibilities of a broader reach to salvation than they had imagined possible; always referring back to interpret other Scriptures that no one would have thought of interpreting in that way until that moment — that moment illuminated by experience.

The Holy Spirit allows the church to see what was always there — for those with eyes to see. The church is always on that walk to Emmaus.

Read it all.


Tobias said...

Thanks Chuck. I probably should have noted that this came in partial response to reading Luke Timothy Johnson's essay... Peace,

Chuck Blanchard said...


I thought that might be the case, but I think you capture the larger point about the legitimacy of experience as a bais for theology even better than Johnson.