Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Reason and Experience (Some Thoughts)

Image result for john piippo nature
Detroit River, in Wyandotte

As a follower of Jesus I view experiential knowledge and knowledge by reasoning as both important. I get concerned when Christians go to either extreme; i.e., either reason or experience, without the other. Here are some thoughts I have about this.

#1 - Ancient Hebrew reasoning was not Western rationalism. The Hebrew word for "knowledge" is "yadah." Yadah has to do with experiential intimacy. To "know" something, in Hebraic fashion, is to be intimate with it. This kind of knowledge is, as philosopher of science Michael Polanyi wrote, "personal knowledge." For example: Do you know how to ride a bike? The answer to this question will be experiential (can you do it?), rather than theoretical (physics of bike riding).

#2 - What it means to "know" something can vary, according to cultures. It is therefore misguided to approach the Bible with a purely rationalistic Western-Enlightenment epistemological paradigm, or with a relativistic post-modern understanding. (See, for example, Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson. They tell of a foreign math student at an American university who, when asked to find the "solution" to a problem, viewed "solution" as a liquid. On the relation of post-modern thinking to a Christian understanding, see James K. A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?)

#3 - The biblical worldview is a highly experiential. Where reason is used, it is often in reflection on experiences and encounters with God. See, e.g., Paul's explanatory reasoning about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Note: left-brained theologians who feel safe with reason but fear experience over-prefer Pauline passages such as this one.  

#4 - The mind is important. Followers of Jesus are told to love God not only with one's heart, but also with one's mind. But the New Testament idea of "mind" is certainly not Cartesian rationalism.

#5 - The great biblical example of a Christian who has deep experiential knowledge and passion, yet also is a very good thinker, is the apostle Paul. Christians who are overly taken by rationalistic apologetics should be sobered by Paul's belief that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. Paul writes many reasonable words about the spiritual realities that he experiences. He is a nice balance between reason and experience.

#6 - Experience, not theory, breeds conviction. Out of experience one begins to relevantly and authentically theorize. Theory without experience is inauthentic.

#7 - The goal of it all is this: what people really need is God. This is different from knowing about God. One can know about God without knowing God. Can one know God without knowing about God? I think so. A little child can know God, correct? The child can know God, while having very little theological understanding of the existence and nature of God. So, the heart comes before the head.

#8 - My own experience says that, when persons experientially encounter something so powerful as God, they want to know - at a level they can understand - that this was God (and that God exists, so it was not an illusion), and what this God is like.

#9 - God wants both our head and our heart. Not one without the other. The Bible is a Hebraic document in which the heart has ontological priority over the head. This is the reverse of Descartes' belief that, in essence, humans are "thinking things."

***I am currently writing Leading the Presence-Driven Church, and How God Changes the Human Heart (A Phenomenology of Spiritual Transformation).

My recent book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.