Monday, December 25, 2006

10. Experience

More than anything else, our experiences of life drive us to seek a word from God. Our search for direction, our drive to make sense of it all, these things push us to search for a word. A loved one gets cancer or is killed in a car accident. We lose our job. A family member announces to us that she is gay. Perhaps it is as mundane a situation as a minister who needs to bring a word to a congregation on Sunday. Our experiences often set the agenda for our approach to the Bible.

In fact, this is the case even when we are not in crisis mode. Our experiences of the world affect in a very significant way what we see and what we don't see as we approach the text. It determines the questions that are most on our minds. Our skills of observation help us see more than is on our mind. Our skills of observation can self-critique what is on our minds in relation to the text. But experience tends to set the agenda.

To be sure, countless aspects of our experience are prone to lead us away from a true word from God as we read the Scripture. Sometimes we don't want the word from God that we need. We don't want to hear that we can't hate our enemy. Experience teaches us that it's dangerous to give those who've hurt us a second chance.

But when we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, experience can also provide us with a certain "spiritual common sense" that helps us think God's thoughts. For example, Scripture does not provide a clear statement allowing a battered wife to depart from her husband. But surely we cannot imagine a God of love who would insist she stay with a man who may one day kill her. It goes against every Christian intuition we should have, especially when we consider that Jesus did not model an exceptionless approach to rules.

Or take a passage like 1 Corinthians 11 on women wearing coverings when they pray or prophesy in church. We have such difficulty following the logic of this passage, try though we might. When we turn to the scholarly literature, we similarly find a good deal of disagreement and diversity of explanation. These are tell tale signs that the specifics of this passage, both in content and argument, are so intertwined with circumstances of the first century that they do not come forward straightforwardly to today without much further ado.

It is highly doubtful that a Christian home can operate like the household codes of 1 Peter and accomplish the same goal it had in the first century, namely, to "live such lives among the pagans so that while they speak against you as a criminal, they will glorify God on the Day of Visitation because of your good deeds." In the ancient world, a well ordered home with the woman in her place pointed to a respectable home and was a good witness. But in our world, to limit the role a woman can play in society is not a good witness. Rather, it resonates with a number of things that are contrary to the message God calls us to proclaim: oppression, inequality, superiority. We can argue that it is not these things with finely tuned arguments, but this is not how the world will perceive these things. And the message of 1 Peter is not about theology; it is about how we appear to the oppressive world around us. Our generation will not glorify God because of our good witness when we place boundaries around women simply because they have different bodies from men.

The most difficult question is then to know when the Holy Spirit is witnessing to our spirit and when we are misguided or listening to our flesh. Here we must submit (not surrender) to larger forces. There are individual prophets who are called to go against the grain. We must always have a place for them among us. But we will know a prophet by whether her call catches on and grows or dies with her.

Beyond the spiritual sense of one individual is the collective spiritual sense of a group. It holds greater authority and is more likely to represent God's will. Still greater authority has the collective spiritual sense of a generation, and still greater the consensus of Christians throughout the century. We assume throughout that all of these individuals and groups are in dialog with Scripture, the place where all such discussions begin, the playing field on which the dialogs of application are conducted.

But we cannot ignore the role our thinking and experiences plays both in the movement from text to life and from life to text. The Bible is not some third path to truth--it is our first source of truth but it is not a different path to truth. All the things that we "think" are true must pass through our individual reasoning and experience. There is no way around it; we are stuck in our heads.

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