We United Methodists believe that God is revealed to us through a blend of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. God offers guidance to us through what we call the quadrilateral. Each one serves as a check and balance to the other lest we attempt to use only one leg of this four-legged stool.
My brother who is a pastor, monastic, and theologian is convinced that one is more important than the others...experience. I have been thinking about the nature of experience and raise these questions.
1. Who determines what an experience means?
2. Does one experience always have the same meaning, or can that meaning change over time?
3. Can we trust others who help us determine what an experience means?
4. Does our experience of God reflect who God really is?
In his book "Remove the Heart of Stone," Donal Dorr talks about two kinds of meanings of our life experiences. Imposed meanings come to us from others, or outside influences. When you have a depth experience someone is there to tell you what that experience means.
An example is the night I walked forward to pray at the altar of my church as a 16 year old teenager. I don't remember the preacher's message or why I went. What I remember is a confusing bundle of emotions that were pretty typical for a teenager. So I had this experience of release and there were tears. Immediately afterwards I was surrounded by people who cared about me who were also authority figures in my life...my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, my parents, and friends. It was at that moment that they imposed a meaning on my experience. They told me that I had been saved. And I believed them for several decades.
Dorr talks about another type of meaning of our experiences: Intrinsic meaning. With this meaning there is time and space for the meaning of our experiences to bubble up from within. One resists imposing a meaning in order to yield to the intrinsic meaning. This type of meaning needs time for prayerful reflection. It comes when we are ready to ponder it.
This is one of the ways a fast-paced world can subvert the process of our spiritual formation. The world is so wired to make snap judgments on people and issues. Labels are a simple way to make sense of our world. But is this world genuine?
I look back on that altar experience differently now. I do not see it as this pivotal salvation moment, but rather a part of my ongoing returning to God. It was a way of expressing my desire to know God and let go of a bunch of unhelpful emotions.
My prayer is that God's people will give each other the holy time and space to resist imposing meaning on one another's experiences. Let us be so present with God and each other so that God can be part of the insight into what life's experiences truly mean.