Thursday, July 07, 2022

Experience and Reason


Jet, from my office window


 Intellectual reasoning without experience is sterile; experience without reason is blind.


As a Christian and as a philosopher I get the heebie-jeebies when Christians go to one extreme or the other. Here are some thoughts I have about this.


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 sciecne Michael Polanyi wrote, "personal knowledge." Like: "Do you know how to ride a bike?" This question is not asking for the physics of bike riding. It means: can you do it? That is very Hebraic. The Bible is Hebraic. We make big mistakes when we ask Western rationalistic questions about the biblical texts.


What it means to "know" something varies according to cultures. It is fundamentally misguided to approach the Bible with a purely rationalistic Western-Enlightenment epistemological paradigm.

Western rationalism is not in the Bible. The Bible is a highly experiential text. No one in the Bible, for example, seems concerned about the age of the universe. The ideas of Aristotle and Plato are conspicuously absent (although C.S. Lewis might protest from the grave about Plato. This also immediately debunks silly "zeitgeist" theories of textual dependence on Greek mythology.)


The mind is important. We are to love God not only with our heart, but also with our mind. But the New Testament idea of "mind" is certainly not Cartesian rationalism.


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. (I'll speak on this tomorrow morning at Redeemer). As Paul knows this to be true, he writes many reasonable words about the spiritual realities that he experiences. Paul is a nice balance between reason and experience. But I think, for Paul, experience comes first. The Damascus Road encounter preceded Pauline theology. Without the former we would never had had the latter.


Experience, not theory, breeds conviction. Out of experience one may relevantly and authentically theorize. Theory without experience is inauthentic.


The goal of it all is this: what people really need is God. I need God. This is different from knowing about God. I can know some things about God without knowing God. Here Craig Keener's new book Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture In Light of Pentecost is helpful. "All of us," Craig writes, "should read Scripture from the vantage point of Pentecost and the experience of the Spirit."


Can I know God without knowing about God? I think so. Just as I can know water without understanding H2O. A little child can know God, while having little theological understanding of the existence and nature of God.

When persons experientially encounter something so powerful as God, some 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.

God wants both our head and our heart. Not one without the other. The Bible is a Hebraic document; therefore, the heart has epistemic priority over the head. This is the reverse of Descartes' belief that, in essence, humans are "thinking things." (Here the recent writings of James K. A Smith are helpful. Primarily, persons are worshiping beings.)