Experience as a component of theology is, I think, the grounding factor. The places, the spaces, the faces of any life, both as an individual or as a part of one’s total historicity will ultimately alter any source or tradition.
It has always been interesting to me to hear persons appeal to their experience in stating their point of view: “Live long enough and you will know!” “I’m not telling you what I read, I’m telling you what I know!” “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen it time and time again!” My mother’s sister, Mama Lodie, with only a junior high school level education to speak of, was one of the smartest women I have known in my lifetime. She called it ‘common sense’. My mother’s brother, Uncle Buddy taught me to play a card game called ‘Coon’ when I was very young. He said, among other things, “cooning and schooling”. Later in my life while riding Amtrak between New York and Atlanta, I met a man in the club car who will never forget that I ‘cooned him’ the entire trip while folks watched and marveled! Experience really is the best teacher.
The experience question must include the ‘human predicament’ which has as a vital part the fact of our experiencing the world from ‘inside out’. The individual, ‘I am’ the center of the universe in that we are stuck in this body. We see ‘out’ of our eyes (at best those things in front of me, never behind my back). The event is real for me only if ‘I am’ present. It is no small thing that the very first criteria for faith, as Jesus puts it, “If anyone would come after me… deny self…”Experience is it’s own knowledge base. To be sure it is the participation in the event, the exposure, the involvement that determines the knowledge or skill gained in the experience.
When you consider the fact that the African’s birthright as American was defined in a context where education was outlawed, the assimilation of culture was only by experience.
The Experience Factor is crucial in the dialogue concerning ‘Existialism’. Howard Thurman says that he believes that Jesus was such a powerful man because of the way he ‘articulated his faith’. So very clear was he in his existence that he was able to speak… across ages of time, to countless lives; not bound by language, culture, race, or creed! To develop your understanding of live based, first, upon your birthright and to come into the fullness of ‘Who you are’ in relationship to God and Man and Universe is… the purpose of life in Creation.
The value of experience is now being recognized by Colleges and Universities in their offering of credits and programs in Life Experience. We not only experience life mentally and physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. No discussion of experience in the context of systematic theology could be complete without an introduction to the work of Paul Tillich. He identifies two poles which he thinks that theology must move back and forth between: eternal truth and temporal situation. It is the creative interpretation of experience that is critical.
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