Experience and Reason


Heather Reichgott's latest entry in her theology game poses the following two questions:

How does reason figure into theological reflection?
How does experience figure into theological reflection?
She provides some good working definitions of reason and experience:
Reason is first of all the logic used in philosophy, whether a priori or a posteriori. Secondly, reason is the mode in which we construct arguments that follow in a sensible manner from one sentence to the next. Experience is day-to-day lived reality, of ourselves and of others. (I draw a rather artificial dividing line between experience as what we live today, vs. tradition as what was lived in the past.) Experience includes religious/mystical experiences (Wesley would say this part is primary) but is not limited to it. Information available from science, political theory etc. is discovered by moving back and forth between experience (data) and reason (theory) and theology can use it too.
It seems clear to me that neither reason nor experience provides us with anything approaching religious certainty. Your experience isn't necessarily my experience; your logical arguments may not convince me of anything. If you want certainty, if you want dogmas, then the free inquiry that reason requires will not work well for you--because it may take you in unexpected directions. And this is how it must be, because religion is not hard science (and really, I believe that even hard science cannot do better than give us verisimilitude.) I recall studying August Comte when I was a senior in college. Comte had proposed a theory he labeled positivism, which sought to give the social sciences the same level of objective certainty on political or sociological questions that chemistry or physics give us about hard scientific questions; but as my sociology professor pointed out, social sciences involve human values, and human values cannot be objectively derived via empirical means in the way that scientific theories can. The same, I would argue, goes for religion. (I didn't know it at the time, but that professor probably planted in my mind the seeds of my eventual rejection of an atheism derived from empiricism as the be-all and end of human knowledge, which in turn led to my rediscovery of religion.)

Reading Karen Armstrong's book A History of God gave me a real sense of the problem. The book presents a dizzying array of philosophical and theological developments over the last 4000 years in the three great monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After a while it all becomes a blur, as philosopher A said this about God, theologian B said something else, and soon you begin to wonder what the point of all this endeavor is, since human reason just seems to go endlessly back and forth about God and cannot ever come up with a consensus about God's nature.

And yet, despite all that, I don't think that religion can do without human reason; nor can it exist independent of experience. And humans have a need to try to make sense of God, even if they cannot arrive at certain conclusions that they all can agree upon. Perhaps the key here is to try to jettison the notion of finding objective truth about God, and instead see reason and experience as tools that are still useful for us in glimpsing some aspect of an infinite and ineffable Sacred reality that we attach ourselves to in our own traditions.

To take this a step further back, I would ask this question: without experience and reason, how can there even be religion? Someone, somehow, has to have come up with this idea that God exists. Where did this idea come from? Heather's definition includes mystical experience as falling under the rubric of experience in general, and I think this is one of the sources of the idea of God. In general, I believe that there are two ways that the idea of God can emerge (there may be others, but these two come to mind):

1 - Someone had a mystical experience of transcendence, applied their human reason to make sense of it, and then told others about it. Maybe the others who were told about it themselves used their own reason or their experiences to further refine the interpretation of this original experience. This process may have gone on for some time, and it may have culminated in someone writing it down--thus giving birth to scriptures.

2 - Someone without a mystical experience reasoned that God nevertheless exists, and then told others about it. Maybe the others who were told about it used their reason to engage in further refinements, as in avenue 1 above.

Avenue 1 is the path of mystics and prophets. Avenue 2 is the path of philosophers. Avenue 1 gives us, for example, Jeremiah or Meister Eckhart; Avenue 2 gives us Plato.

There is, of course, a feedback loop involved in this. The kind of interpretations that we apply to either our own experience of God, or the experience of others, or the simple process of unexperienced reasoning about God, may refer to what others who preceded us have already done. That's where tradition comes into play. The Bible provides one such source that many use to help refine their own later interpretations. This is great, as far as I am concerned, as long as one recognizes that the Bible itself was a product of the same processes that are at work when we ourselves also apply our reason and experience to reflect upon God. Once you deny this about the Bible, you can fall into the trap of fundamentalism.

It is where God and the world intersect that experience and reason become important, I think. (If you think that God never intersects with the world, then perhaps any reasoning about God becomes mostly idle speculation. That's probably why few have any use for deism.) And the way we understand how the universe works influences how we think God interacts with the world. The ancient peoples who produced the Bible had a simple cosmology that made sense to them at the time, but which we now know to be incorrect. But their cosmology no doubt influenced how they saw God's activity in the world. God was seen as residing in heaven "above" the world; God was a patriarchal figure who ruled over us. God was a magician in the sky who could make things happen just by willing them. Here we have a cosmology and a theology that went hand in hand. It also dovetailed nicely with the authoritarian and hierarchically organized societies of many parts of the world; humans in some societies may have had difficulty imagining a non-omnipotent, supernaturally theistic God, because they took for granted a world where power was concentrated in the hands of a ruler or ruling elite.

Our modern cosmology shows us that the world as we know it is the product of billions of years of slow, ongoing processes, going all the way back to the Big Bang. I would argue, then, that we thus can see that God does not work by dint of sudden miracles, as the ancients thought, but rather he or she acts through the ongoing processes of the universe. It is my opinion that miracles or sudden violations of the laws of physics by an external, transcendent Deity don't really make sense in the modern paradigm, and are a product of an old theistic conception that jibed well with an outdated cosmology. This is where reason and experience have led me to conclude that we must have a paradigm shift in our understanding of God, away from the old omnipotent God of miracles.

I have come to another conclusion about the processes of the universe. The Big Bang was itself a kind of creative process; the evolution of stars and the development of planets was a creative process; the evolution of novel life forms was a creative process; and the development of self-conscious beings on a remote planet in one corner of a particular galaxy was a creative process. I thus believe that creativity is an important characteristic of the ongoing processes of the universe through which God acts. Had I not ever heard of the Big Bang, had I known nothing about the history and evolution of the universe and of life on earth, I might not have come to this conclusion about God. Thus reason and experience concerning how the universe operates have led me to draw some inferences about Divine nature.

All of this points to why I believe that Christianity has to move beyond a literal interpretation of some of its myths. How would, for example, a literal resurrection of Jesus fit in with how God operates in the world? Such an incredible miracle contradicts the method of Divine action that I infer through experience and reason--that God acts through the laws of the universe, rather than against them, that the universe proceeds through the continual interrelationship of events and processes that are always taking place. I thus interpret the literal resurrection of Jesus to have been something other than a historical event, but rather a myth that may point to various deeper truths but which cannot be taken literally. On the other hand, the creative impulse that led early Christians to develop these myths around the life and death of Jesus--that does seem perfectly consistent with God's creative role. And we can still apply the creative impulse today, as we develop newer understandings of God that jibe with our experience and our reason.