I recently witnessed a Twitter argument about sexism and inequality in the church, and saw a proud Calvinist fellow inform a young woman that she needed to “repent” of the “sin” of “putting personal experiences above scripture,” because she believed strongly that women shouldn’t be denied opportunities for service and leadership in the church. He was rude and condescending, yet I know many Christians who would agree with his sentiment (if not his attitude). The idea is this: all of our big questions about religion and life have already been addressed and answered to complete satisfaction by the Bible, which has been correctly translated, interpreted, and distilled, leaving us with pure and all-sufficient truth. God has already spoken, and there’s nothing you can feel or experience or discover that will trump what has already been revealed. This principle, an offshoot of the inerrancy doctrine, takes the form of cautionary admonition drilled into the heads and hearts of young people. Your feelings, instincts, and experiences will deceive you and lead you astray, so you should actively suppress them and look instead to established dogma. The result is often frustration and emotional distress. Why do I feel something so strongly, or why did I have such a powerful experience, if it conflicts with what I’ve already been taught is the truth?
To be fair, some Christian traditions have given credence to the role of experience in the formation and life of the church. There is, for example, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which sees the Christian faith as founded on four elements: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. But systems like this and other similar ones always privilege scripture over any other factor; the Bible may trump and mitigate our experiences, but never the other way around. These traditions rarely acknowledge the diversity of voices in scripture, and so their engagement with the Bible is not conversant. It is a one way street. Thus the role of personal experience is severely limited and the same cognitive dissonance I described above sets in.
Today, the biggest application of this principle is in questions of tolerance and inclusion. Young Christians see certain social barriers breaking down, and certain groups of people who were once marginalized becoming increasingly affirmed and accepted. This makes sense to them and seems like a positive development, until their religious elders remind them of their church’s longstanding (usually scripture-based) objections. This mindset is pervasive today in conservative Christian circles, especially in social and popular media, and like so many religious responses it is designed to keep young members “safe” and on the orthodox path. As a result, a generation of young Christians associate their faith with an overly cautious, closed-hearted, exclusivist posture.
There is perhaps a modicum of good sense in the impulse to keep personal instinct and experience in check. Life is chaos when everyone makes moral judgments in the self-interested isolation of their own mind and heart. Traditions and rules give communities their shape and access to the wisdom and experience of past generations. But there’s the rub. How did that old generation get so wise? Through experience! Is the current generation, indebted as it may be to the past, to be denied its own formative experience? Are we so sure that the interpretations and methods of the past are beyond critique? Are we so certain that the values we are defending are timeless truths and not merely the preferences and biases of our forerunners? Every generation deserves the opportunity to ask these questions afresh for themselves.
When someone points to a bit of scripture and says, “remember what the Bible says!” as an argument for suppressing our instincts against bigotry or exclusion, we must remember: the text in question has both an apparent surface meaning and a broader canonical context, and the person appealing to the text has their own personal context and agenda. The chance of all of these factors aligning perfectly is slim. There is always room for dialogue and debate, and no one can tell you definitively that your feelings are invalid. Exclusion feels wrong because it is wrong, and morality without compassion feels dangerous because it is.
For Christians, this should be even clearer. Jesus himself taught a method for testing religious claims and interpretations. It’s not whether or not they come from the Bible or whether everyone else around us already subscribes to them, but whether or not they produce good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20; Luke 6:43-45). Do we fully grasp what he’s saying? Jesus invites us to rely on our experiences and instincts to determine whether or not something is good and right. Jesus asks us to trust in him, not blindly or according to dogma, but with moral sensitivity and according to our instincts. If something is good and true and beneficial, it will withstand scrutiny. If something is toxic or divisive or harmful, our hearts will tell us so.
So how do we keep from developing bad instincts or being deceived by our experiences? By being honest with ourselves and others, by seeking dialogue and community with others, through fresh interactions with the old traditions, and by making room for feelings and experiences that don’t necessarily reinforce or validate our own (a.k.a. empathy). For Christians in particular, it means keeping an eye on Jesus and trusting him that we can find a way together. You’ll know when it’s right, because you’ll feel it for yourself.