Experience vs. Theology: A False Dichotomy

Imagine that I never talked to my wife of 16-years. No sharing of dreams, passions, likes or dislikes. Nothing.

Knowing that talking could lead to miscommunication, I, instead, choose to  experience her presence through snuggling up next to her or simply by being in the same room. After all, I reason, experiencing her presence is more life changing than any conversation could be.

Or so goes the common thought when it comes to God. Over and over again well-intention people pit experience against theology with a bias towards one or the other. To do this is to reduce the fullness of God, placing him inside a self-defined box where he ceases to be who he really is.

Theology, contrary to popular culture, isn’t having information about God or holding to the right doctrine. Simply put, theology is the study of God – meaning that we are dong theology every time we think about Jesus, talk about Jesus, read the Scriptures, ponder the deep meanings of life, etc.  Stanley Grenz & John Franke defined theology in their book Beyond Foundationalism as the “ongoing conversation among those whom the God of the Bible has encountered in Jesus Christ.” Accordingly I love theology as it brings me closer to Jesus while also giving me a glimpse into the different facets of him.

Experience, similar to theology, is another way of knowing God. Which is to say that it is a way for us to emotionally encounter the living God who actively seeks us out. Experience in this way is more than simply having a charismatic phenomena happen in, through or around you. Sadly, though, I would have to say that charismatic phenomena is what most people think about just like folks tend to reduce “theology” into “doctrine.”

In returning to our analogy, reducing God to an experience would be akin to  snuggling up with your spouse while never talking to them. While snuggling up with them is great, it doesn’t capture the fullness of who that person is as you would never hear their dreams, passions, hearts, or concerns. Similarly if you just talked to your spouse while never snuggling with them, you would lose a portion of who they were as skin to skin contact brings an intimacy that can never be replaced by conversation.

This is why I am a HUGE proponent of embracing both experience and theology. I want to know Jesus in all his glory – meaning that I want to both experience his presence as well as hear his thoughts.

To think back over my life is to note that I have been dramatically changed by encounters with God through both physical experiences and theology.  For every charismatic phenomena I’ve experienced or every sweet time of just being in his presences, there is an equally powerful encounter with God through a theological chat with a friend or via an amazing book.

The way I live my life – the way I see the world – the way I talk to my children – the manner in which I treat my wife – the way I approach my work – everything I do is influenced by the memorial stones of experience and theology. I cannot and will not separate experience and theology. They are two wings of a plane that work together to give flight to that which should never fly.

The fact that we are even having this conversation about experience and theology is amazing thing. The ancient world, as noted by N.T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, did not separate action (experience) and belief (theology) as they saw the two explicitly intertwined.  The idea that we fallible humans can somehow can stand above the fray of life and come up with the “correct” view of God is a modernist bound-set reductionary concept.

We can no more separate our experiences from our theology or our theology from our experience than we can  turn lead into gold. The ancient world was correct in that the two concepts are intertwined to the point that they almost become one.

As such, I would say a better way forward would be to embrace the mystery of the entanglement between experience and theology. Let us do both with an eye towards walking with Jesus into the unknown of the future.

“A true seeking after God results from an experience of God which one falls in love with for no reason other than finding God irresistibly lovable. In this way the lovers of God are the ones who are the most passionately in search of God” -Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God

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