The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job, part 5 of 6

by Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, PhD

Within the Reformed theological tradition (where I stand, theologically), giving too much weight to personal religious experience often makes us very uneasy.[1] Reformed Christians (and we are certainly not alone here) live with an ongoing tension between what is known through revelation—God’s truth, wisdom, and grace come “down” from above, as it were—and human experience. Theologically speaking, it’s a question of epistemology. How does one come to know what one knows? How does one come to know God, to trust in Christ, to experience grace? Generally speaking, the Reformed tradition stresses that whatever we know of God comes to us because God chooses to reveal it to us directly. This knowledge does not emerge naturally, that is, by way of human reason or subjective experience. It is given, and we receive it. We don’t move toward such knowledge; it’s a gift. The Reformed tradition privileges God’s revelation and is reluctant to put too much stock in the authority of human experience.[2] Implicit in this view is the belief that experience cannot always be trusted because all of our faculties of discernment are “fallen,” subject to error, “bound” by the power of sin, and therefore distorted and thus inadequate. And so the Reformed tradition prefers to build its theological systems on so-called “objective” ideas gathered from an authoritative text. Again, trusting experience can be messy, complicated. How can it be verified? Substantiated? It’s far too individualistic. And it’s risky. Is divine revelation “finished” or “closed,” or can there be new things to discover? Can human experience be a medium of revelation? If so, will there be wisdom or knowledge that emerges from personal experience that goes beyond or even supersedes what we find within the received Jewish and Christian traditions? These are enormous theological questions. Even the suggestion that new revelation is possible borders on heresy for some Christians.

Yet, for all these concerns (and they need to be taken seriously), experience still has to count for something, doesn’t it? We need to lift up something often forgotten in religious communities: experience of God is prior to dogmatic formulation; indeed, experience grounds conviction. All that we know in our hearts; all that we know deep in our souls; all of our losses, our traumas, our sufferings, our relationships, our gifts, our personalities; what is both conscious and unconscious; all of these are caught up in the mix of what we know of God and how we know God. Augustine (354-430) asserts, “To know myself is to know you, O God.”[3] Yes, theology isn’t biography, but we can’t disconnect the two that easily; we must not discount the value of human experience.

And yet, sadly, there are people both in and outside the Church who have been told not to trust their experiences. They’ve been taught to question the value of their feelings and experiences, to discount them. For example, I know there are countless people in the Church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about them. Why is this? And there are countless others who have had profound religious experiences and left the Church because they couldn’t find a community that took them seriously. There are people who are hungry to share something of what they have learned through their encounters with God, experiences not that dissimilar to Job’s. They want to be faithful to their experience, both individually as well as in community.

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) wisely writes, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness” (97). We run the risk of becoming exceptionally harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing, the experiences of sisters and brothers who want to tell us something of God’s transforming love.

You can download the complete essay, published by the Zürich Lab here, or find it on Amazon in Kovacs’s recent collection: Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parsons Porch, 2016).

This week, we are revisiting “The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job” by Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, PhD, originally published through the Zürich Lab. We are republishing the essay in six sections over six days, part of our preparations for a lecture, book launch and exhibition at our Berlin LabThe Legend of Job in Art, Philosophy, and Psychology on Saturday October 14, 2017 and for our Exploration in Jerusalem this December. With The Legend of Job we’ll celebrate works by acclaimed Newfoundland artist Gerry Squires and calligrapher Boyd Chubbs who, in 2015, created the first illustrated edition of the Book of Job; the work was Squires’ last. A copy of the book will be on display at the Berlin Stillpoint Lab through November, and in December, at the Zürich Stillpoint Gallery.

Notes: 

[1] The Reformed theological tradition is a major branch of Protestantism generally associated with the thought and practice of John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) in Zürich, and John Knox (c. 1514-1572) in Edinburgh. Today, the heirs of this tradition are part of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which has 218 member churches, denominations in 107 countries around the world, and some 75 million members. http://wcrc.ch/

[2] In many respects, C. G. Jung’s so-called gnostic bent, privileging personal experience or knowledge over the authority of tradition and religious institutions, helpfully exposes some of the shortcomings of the Reformed outlook. I contend that Jung offers a necessary and needed critique of the Reformed tradition while remaining situated within the Reformed tradition. In this sense he is very Protestant and very Reformed: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (the Church reformed and always being reformed). Indeed, Jung claims to stand on the extreme left wing of Protestantism (CW 11.537). Sonu Shamdasani believes that Jung “sees what’s been lost in Protestantism,” namely “individual symbol formation” (Lament for the Dead 119).

[3] Viderim me, viderim te. Quoted by St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) in The Interior Castle, The Complete Works of St. Teresa.

Leave a comment



Get the latest news

Sign up for the Stillpoint Spaces newsletter.