Quadrilateral: Experience (Part Four)

IV. EXPERIENCE: (Much of what was written in the previous article about “Reason” could also apply to “Experience.” Reason and Experience are closely related within the human psyche. I will not repeat what we wrote about Reason that is applicable to Experience.) 

Definitions of Experience:

  1. Direct observation or participation in events as a basis of knowledge
  2. The fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation
  3. The accumulation of knowledge or skill that results from direct participation in events or activities
  4. The process of getting knowledge or skill from seeing or feeling things
  5. Knowledge gained by actually doing or living through something
  6. Synonyms for Experience: coming into contact, doing, exposure, involvement in, participation, practice, encounter

Experience (and reason) depend on consciousness. Here are some definitions of consciousness:

  1. Sentience or awareness of internal or external existence
  2. A state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings
  3. The quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself
  4. The state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings
  5. A property that emerges from particular types of physical arrangements of matter (This definition is based on the philosophies of positivism and materialism we mentioned in Part Three on Reason.)

These definitions are marginally helpful and reveal how ambiguous the concept of consciousness is among humans. Until recently, many “specialists” argued that animals have no consciousness (an argument at which many pet owners would take offence). Only in the past few years have scientists agreed that animals do have consciousness, although the degree and kind of consciousness animals have will vary with each species. 

I suggest for our purposes that a better question would be, “What is self-consciousness?” Here are some definitions of self-consciousness:

  1. Conscious of one’s own actions or states as belonging to or originating in oneself
  2. A heightened sense of self-awareness
  3. Awareness of oneself as an individual or of one’s being, actions, or thoughts
  4. (My personal favorite definition) Self-reflective consciousness: the distinctive type of awareness that carries within itself the ability to consider and think about ourselves. It’s the mind’s mirror that reflects to us what we are doing and thinking, and lets us ponder such. It provides the capacity of self-appraisal, self-judgment, self-correction, and self-guidance. 

I remember one of my college professors defining self-consciousness as “the ability to think about thinking about yourself.” As far as we know, we are the only beings capable of this type of self-consciousness. Perhaps there are animals of higher intelligence (apes, dolphins, elephants) who have some limited forms of self-consciousness. Maybe there are other creatures in the universe who are capable of more self-consciousness and awareness than the most intelligent humans. But we do know that we are capable of self-consciousness. We can think about thinking about ourselves. We have a sense of the future, the present, the past, and our own mortality. We can create and imagine. We can be aware of the “many selves” which make up our one self. The extraordinary gifts and accomplishments of the arts and sciences are powerful testimonies to the self-consciousness of human beings. 

Neither science nor philosophy has been able to explain the phenomenon of consciousness in purely materialistic terms. There are even scientists and philosophers who suggest that consciousness is the most basic and necessary reality to explain the existence of anything. I don’t pretend to understand all (or even most) of the arguments in favor of such a proposal. But I do find the suggestion pertinent to questions about the ultimate source of reality and being. How does our consciousness relate to Consciousness? And how does our being relate to Being?

While there is a societal and collective dimension to many experiences and while many fall “lockstep” into the prejudices and fears of a group mentality, individuals are still responsible for how they choose to process what they experience.

Our self-consciousness is what allows us to have and remember experiences. Experiences can be individual and collective. Examples of collective experiences are slavery, Jim Crow, the two World Wars of the 20th Century, the Holocaust, 9/11, and the current pandemic. More positive experiences in history have been the enhancing results of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the invention of the printing press, advances in science, expansion of civil rights, and public education.  Although millions of people were impacted by these positive and negative experiences, each individual has been unique in how he or she processed them. For example, compare those Germans who offered their fanatical devotion to Hitler to the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany. Nazism was experienced differently by both groups. While there is a societal and collective dimension to many experiences and while many fall “lockstep” into the prejudices and fears of a group mentality, individuals are still responsible for how they choose to process what they experience.

Because of the different ways we humans experience life, we must be attentive to the testimonies of others as to how their experiences have affected them. This sensitivity is a type of compassion which is paramount in the Christian faith. As we have seen elsewhere in this blog, compassion is a deep form of love whereby we are willing to “suffer with another.” Compassion requires us to put aside our own selves with our presuppositions and perspectives and to try our best to identify with another human being. We are called to take a leap of extraordinary and patient imagination as we try to experience the world through the eyes, ears, perspectives, and heart of another person. All authentic love depends on our willingness to leap as best we can into the other’s self. Such a leap requires a temporary suspension of our own concerns, rights, and assurances. We “empty” ourselves so that we might encounter another. As Martin Buber revealed, life is truly lived in the “betweenness” of us and the world around us. It is only as the other becomes an authentic “Thou” to our “I” that we can connect with and understand another.

Such compassionate understanding can also be collective and individual. A powerful example of a collective experience which transformed the minds and hearts of many Americans was the 1977 miniseries “Roots.” For the first time in the lives of many whites in the United States, people experienced the horrors of slavery through the stories fleshed out in this series. Initially, ABC had difficulty finding companies willing to support “Roots” through advertisements.  The network’s executives also feared the series would be a flop or would antagonize the American public. So, “Roots” was scheduled for eight consecutive nights (January 23-30, 1977) with the hope that few people would commit to such a demanding schedule. However, “Roots” enjoyed the largest viewership ever attracted by any television series in US history. The final episode had over 100 million viewers. An average of 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes. (Eighty-five per cent of all television homes saw all or part of this miniseries.) “Roots” was before recording devices were available to the public. No DVR capabilities were possible, and yet millions of Americans made viewing “Roots” the priority of their lives for eight consecutive nights. Something transforming happened to the American psyche during that week in January of 1977. Although each person processed the series in his or her own way, we all “experienced” (through this transferred solidarity) the pain, struggles, hopes, dreams, and dignity of generations of Blacks. The graphic tragedy of slavery became real in the lives of characters like Kunte Kinte, Matilda, Fiddler, Chicken George, Kizzy, etc. “Roots” was a positive and astonishing collective experience.

The same kind of understanding and transformation has occurred in some churches and many individuals over issues involving the lgbtq community. As experiences have been shared from that community, people of conscience and compassion have listened without judgment. The heartbreaking testimonies of those who identify as lgbtq have opened the minds and hearts of straights in society and many churches. Lgbtq stories have overridden many centuries of prejudice, ignorance, and intolerance.

In both cases (slavery and lgbtq rights), Scripture can be quoted which condones slavery and condemns the “sin” of homosexuality. (However, in the latter case, there is considerable debate among biblical scholars as to what those passages actually mean. The KJV seems very straightforward in its translation. Paul, however, did not write in King James English. Some of the terms translated in the KJV and other versions of the Bible as referring specifically to homosexuals and gay sex are not so clearly obvious in the Greek New Testament. But ambiguity and doubt are among the first casualties among those with an agenda of condemnation.) 

There are biblical passages which specifically state that slaves should obey their masters. (These passages were relentlessly quoted by Southern preachers and “masters” to defend slavery as the ordained will of God.) And there may well be one or two passages in the New Testament which refer to men who engage in homosexual acts with slaves and boys. These passages may even have referred to all homosexual acts. However, in the case of slavery and the status of those who are lgbtq, what progressive Christians have decided is that the experiences of those in these groups call for justice and compassion. And this justice and compassion overrule rigid applications of a few passages in the Bible. Such Christians have also allowed different parts of the Bible to challenge and correct other parts. For example, if we as followers of Jesus took seriously the Golden Rule—”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—we might ask ourselves which is more critical to our faithful discipleship: a few disputed passages of Scripture that are challenged by other passages as well as the testimony of others in our midst, or the overall message of love as the essential nature of God and those who claim to worship that God? Such an approach to Scripture could lead to questions like: (1) “If I were a slave, what would I want?” If slavery is oppressive and cruel for me, then it would also be oppressive and cruel for others. Love as defined and demonstrated by Jesus overrides the cultural practices of the past and any limited capacities for compassion. (2) “If I as a straight man or woman were lgbtq and were attracted to people of my own sex in the same way and to the same extent that I am attracted to members of the opposite sex, would I want to be condemned for ‘a crime of being’”? (Think for a moment about that horrifying phrase “crimes of being”–being persecuted and condemned for who you are racially ethnically, sexually, etc.) There must always be a center/focus/grounding people of faith have if they are to live coherent lives of integrity. I would suggest that the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, everlasting love of God we are called to emulate is the guiding light for all our ethics and theology. Love as primary is affirmed by every writer in the New Testament. John even says, “God is love.” I doubt if God would ever condemn us for loving too much. If we must err, let us err on the side of compassionate love. 


I have always been suspicious of the notion that communities are creative, innovative, and progressive. (This notion was “dogma” when I was in seminary. The assumption was that communities created religious traditions.) Communities are inherently conservative as they seek to “conserve” what defines who they are and how they live. Sociologists who study the traditions of communities in the past (especially agricultural communities like those which existed in biblical times) have found that it takes three or more generations before one can see much change within those traditions. 

I suggest that a more persuasive notion is that individuals are the ones who are creative, innovative, and progressive. Christianity has Jesus as its founder; Judaism has Abraham, Moses, and the prophets; Zoroastrianism has Zoroaster; Buddhism has Buddha; Islam has Mohammed. And within those larger religious traditions, we find individuals who have insights and experiences which lead them to “purify” and reform their inherited tradition. (Almost all of the innovators within a religious tradition claim they are returning to their religion’s original and, therefore, more authentic roots. However, they each have a particular focus and emphasis which reveal novelty and change.) For example, within Christianity we have Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, St Francis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, George Fox and Margaret Fell who founded the Society of Friends/Quakers, etc. Each of these religious figures were innovative in their understanding and expression of the Christian faith. They were within the larger tradition of that faith but were guided by what they experienced to be God’s will as they modified that faith.

Sometimes movements within a religious tradition can be more destructive than helpful. For example, the Rapture and Dispensationalism are belief systems developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries which have seriously distorted the Christian faith in the United States. Specific individuals are responsible for the birth and expansion of these religious beliefs (Margaret McDonald, John Darby, C. I. Schofield, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye) We may also point out that religious cults all begin with one individual (Jim Jones, David Koresh). Regardless of the value of religious movements and the experiences they bring, their origins depend on individuals. 

The question then becomes how a religious faith can preserve its uniqueness and foundational truth and at the same time allow for the inevitable experiences which have the potential either to validate and enhance or distort and destroy the essence of that faith.

The question then becomes how a religious faith can preserve its uniqueness and foundational truth and at the same time allow for the inevitable experiences which have the potential either to validate and enhance or distort and destroy the essence of that faith. The other three parts of the Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, and Reason) can serve as “checks and balances” in protecting the integrity of a faith while still allowing for the changes necessary for the progression and enhancement of such faith. 

The testimony of one lone individual can also be examined by the larger community as to whether there is authenticity in that witness. Bizarre beliefs and heretical tendencies have been held in check for centuries by the will and wisdom of the majority within a faith. However, as we saw with cults and twisted traditions like the Rapture and Dispensationalism, individuals can cultivate followers—sometimes, millions of followers–with tragic results. But over time these groups self-destruct or become obsolete. Time has proven to be a good leveler and sifter.

I would suggest that from a certain perspective, Experience could be seen as the most important and almost certainly the most original of the four components of the Quadrilateral. All religious truth begins with the experience of one individual or a small group of individuals. When that original experience is accepted as authentically representative of God, it becomes a tradition, then a theology, doctrine, and dogma. The chronological order of this development could be as follows: 


This order, of course, is not rigid and individuals and groups can “slide” back and forth between these stages as circumstances and new experiences warrant. However, even though the original experience is primary, what many churches and denominations emphasize are the last two stages of this progression. Dogma is four stages removed from the originating experience! Every step of progress in the Christian faith has gone back in some way to relive the truth of its originating experience. Time, the community, and the other three parts of the Quadrilateral help determine whether these new experiences and the theological changes resulting from them are valid. 

The Church is the Body of Christ with a vital and indispensable communal quality to the experience of that Body. However, each individual within that Body has his or her own religious experience which makes the Christian faith vital and indispensable for that person. A religion without experience is dead. A religion with only experience is truncated at best and destructive at worst. But a Christian faith based on Experience and in dialogue with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason can be vibrant, relevant, and open to greater mysteries, truth, and wholeness.

Christian faith based on Experience and in dialogue with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason can be vibrant, relevant, and open to greater mysteries, truth, and wholeness.

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