Experience and the Bible

I meant for this blog to be part to of my Exploring the Bible two-parter, and when I wrote part 1 I had the intention of writing two different posts on how we interpret the Bible, one focusing on external means and the second on internal means. Since then I’ve heard and thought about some stuff that has made me think that a better treatment of the topic of how we can learn about God would be to take a step back from the Bible for a second and to look at how internal means of Christian learning intersect with a reading of the Bible, but have a scope that goes beyond that intersection.

I was challenged recently by the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, a Catholic friar and teacher known for teachings on Christian contemplation and mysticism. Rohr appeared on Pete Enns’ new podcast, The Bible for Normal People recently to discuss some of his thoughts on the Bible. On the podcast he talked about what he called the tricycle of Christian knowledge: experience, the Bible and tradition.

He explained it better than me, so go listen to the podcast episode, but I’ll try to summarise what he said before adding my own thoughts with regard to the topic I mentioned at the start. Rohr argued that the Enlightenment – the period of history where Western thought became more rational and scientific – led Christians to require an authority that they could build their reasonable faith upon. Protestants settled on the Bible, proclaiming it to be the ultimate truth, and referring all of their doctrines back to Scripture (which becomes problematic when none of them can agree on what the Bible says about those doctrines – predestination I’m looking at you).

Conversely, Catholics looked to tradition and the church to provide the basis for their rational faith. This led to a higher estimation of the Pope and the church structure than ever before. Rohr’s articulation of these events helped me to see one of the reasons why Catholics and Protestants have such different views of the same religion.

Moving on from this explanation of post-Enlightenment Christianity, Rohr pointed out that both sides of the Reformation’s divide neglected individual experience, which he now sees as the leading wheel of the Christian learning tricycle. If memory serves me, he argued that experience guides our learning about God as the front wheel of a tricycle guides its direction.

To Protestants, this sounds heretical, but it is not such an outlandish idea. What would our knowledge of the love of God in the Bible be if we did not experience it for ourselves? What could we really know about the Holy Spirit if we didn’t experience his reality in daily life? What value is the Bible’s teaching about Jesus’ resurrection if we don’t experience a redeemed life? Experience is central to our understanding of Scripture, but we don’t say that out loud because it sounds like we’re putting it higher than the Bible.

For me, it makes complete sense that experience is the guiding wheel, because what is Christian experience if it’s not the lived reality of a restored life made possible by Jesus resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a perfect analogy, but let’s say your best friend is a celebrity. What kind of relationship would you have with them if you never did anything with them, but only kept up with their actions through tabloids? You wouldn’t be a friend, you’d be a fan. I think there’s an extent to which that can be true of Christians. If we have the knowledge of God that comes through the Bible but don’t have a lived experience, we’re just scholars with an academic interest in an object of study at best. But instead, we claim to have a daily experience of joy and relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. What’s that really worth to us?

Surely the answer is that it has to be worth everything. Jesus doesn’t talk in half measures – the life that he promises isn’t something half hearted, and I can’t believe that he intended it to be lived vicariously through words on a page, even if those are the pages of the Bible.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging the Bible, but I am trying to think through how we read it in a way that makes sense in light of the redeemed life that Jesus has made possible. External tools for interpreting and understanding the Bible are good and needed, but they are dry and ineffectual without a life that backs it up.

I’m also not talking necessarily about a life that reflects a particular denomination’s idea about what a Christian life should looks like. I think what I’m saying is that our experience of the Bible should be lived out in a life that bears the fruit that Christ told us to look out for.

These are thoughts that I’m currently thinking through. I don’t intend them to be an argument for a particular view of Scripture, and I might think something completely different a few days from now. I’m just starting to wonder if the Protestants of the Enlightenment weren’t reductionist with their mantra of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and if there might be more to a redeemed life with God than that.

Equally I think that there must be more to a redeemed life than great Sunday services and the emotional highs of sung worship and prayer ministry – however good those might be, I don’t think an experience of God in a redeemed life is meant to be lived out on a Sunday with the rest of the week a mediocre add-on. No one would say that, of course, but I wonder if we slip into the trap of letting that become reality sometimes.

I don’t know, what do you think? What role should experience play in our reading of the Bible and our learning about God? Am I wide of the mark, or is there a shred of usefulness in what I’ve said? Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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