[Why is it that I always come up with my best thoughts when I’m driving down the road, listening to jazz, away from any venue where I could possibly actually record my thoughts as they come to me? I really ought to find my mini-recorder and keep it in the Explorer with me….]
I recently just finished up a CD series of Donald Carson, who spoke this past winter at Cedarville University during the annual Staley Lectureship Series. He spoke on the emergent church movement and integration of postmodernism into that movement. Something that he said really stuck out to me — postmodernism holds as one of its primary foundations the establishment of personal experience to determine truth. This method of finding ‘truth’ has crept into the church and influenced it in ways that I, personally, find somewhat alarming.
Something that has stuck in my craw for a few years now has finally been revealed to me, based upon this ‘revelation’. The worship times at Cedarville (during my five-year tenure there), especially the student-led times, often had a feeling of wrongness to them. A good friend of mine described it like this: “It was like they were ‘forcing’ us to worship, like they were saying, ‘Worship, dang it!'” This was in response to the call to worship, where the congregation was called to think on God, to think on all He has done for us, and to worship him with your heart, essentially with your feelings, your emotions. On the surface, this all sounded very good, but something still stuck out as being wrong about it. In reflection now, I see that this call to worship focused almost exclusively on the experience of God, little on the knowledge of Him and on His revealed truth through His Word. And the songs we sang, the worship choruses, were fantastic for building up emotion and describing the experience of God in our lives, but they also left me feeling theologically destitute, frequently neglecting words of Scripture, words of absolute truth to put all my experiences as a Christian, as a follower of Jehovah, into perspective in light of the Almighty One of Heaven, instead paving over them with poetic niceties. (Don’t get me wrong; I believe there is a place for this sort of worship, just not to exclusivity.) This is the wrongness that I perceived there, this almost single-minded focus on the experience, to the near-exclusion of the absolute and powerfully revealed truth of the Bible.
The weakness of this is that each individual interprets the same experience in a slightly different way, thereby gleaning a different version of the ‘truth’ than all the others. Truth suddenly becomes relative to the individual, based upon their own analysis of the experience in question. Multiple psychological studies have shown that people often define reality by their experiences, much more so in today’s world than in any other time in history. Their ideas of what is true and what is not is flavored by the circumstances they encounter each and every day. The trouble is, every single person encounters a different version of the ‘truth’ because of this approach. Of course, a postmodernist would probably now say that this all the more justification for their worldview, that nothing can ever be truly known because every person’s perspective is slightly different, that reality is constantly shifting for everyone because the only basis they have for ‘truth’ is their own experience of the world around them. They would even say that individual interpretation of the Bible as a standard for absolute truth is perpetually flawed and relative to personal experience because everyone is going to interpret the Bible according to the ways in which they perceive and experience the world. And yet, this is a flawed premise, in and of itself, for the Bible can be interpreted according to an unchanging standard and often be applied to a wide variety of circumstances and settings. All this is not to belittle the practicality of experience in determining truth. Paul himself, in many of his epistles to the early church, specifically encouraged the saints to test their faith against their own experiences and knowledge. But he also pointed them to Scripture, pointing out their sins and flaws, pointing them back to the path that leads to Christ. So, while experience is valuable for the testing of our faith and the working of our salvation, it cannot be held up exclusively as the only means for establishing truth because our own interpretations of experiences are frequently flawed and tainted by our finite sensory and cognitive capacities. The one source of truth that I am aware of that never changes (and has never changed over the centuries) is the Holy Scriptures, and while my own experiences help me understand this God that I love a little better and relate to my fellow man, they fall short of the true understanding of Him who I serve. Can I ever hope to know God and His truth fully? No. Not ever, for I am limited in my understanding, and I always, ever will be. But it is not enough to stop me from trying to learn more and understand more, from the only Source of true knowledge, for all the rest of my days. And I expect that I will often be wrong in my understanding. But I can frame my daily experiences within the context of the Word of God, and thereby gain truth and sanity and direction for my life.