Is experience the best teacher?

We were assured that when all the educational techniques failed to instill skill and wisdom, life would box our ears, administering stern lessons guaranteed to catch our attention and redirect our paths.

Really? When it comes to the great issues of humanity spanning time and space, we resemble a puppy endlessly chasing its tail rather than a finely tuned canine companion, properly chastened and devoted to its master. As one professor once said to a biblical studies class, “God could do so much more for us, if we didn’t make the same mistakes so many times.” So, we must conclude that, for both individuals and people groups, experience has pedagogical limits.

What imposes those limits? Consider the following. First, our understanding of experience takes different forms, such as:

•           the raw data collected after an important event,

•           emotional effects caused by an incident,

•           immediate, profound change in a person’s life,

•           a gradual realignment over time of inner leanings and perspective,

•           interpretations created out of the impact upon personality as the result of some happening,

•           repetition of duties carried out in the performance of one’s profession,

•           a presumed authority in decision-making,

•           a trans-generational, reflective, contemplative process leading to convictional knowing.

Secondly, since all reported experience is the result of an interpretive matrix arising from many points of contact within personality and community, purely objective experience is impossible. No matter how convincing it may be to those who receive it, experience is always subjective and limited in its convictional authenticity.

1.         In addition to the multiplicity of perceptual fields inherent in every individual and community, accepted assumptions about reality will automatically seek to establish the meaning of experiences, regardless of the evidence produced by events that may be contrary to them. Thus, Anne Frank could look Nazi terror full in the face and, in faith, affirm the goodness of life. Others, following their assumptions of futility, see only humanity’s revolving door of violence and give in to hopelessness.

2.         The priority of assumptions of meaning leads most people to discount the experiences of those who do not agree with them. This is especially true of persons who rely on experience as authoritative for personal and communal guidance.

3.         The priority of assumptions also limits the ability to change and leads to defensiveness of person and one’s ideological party.

4.         Current Western society counts heavily on reported experiences, with their attendant interpretations and meanings, as indicators of truth.

5.         We are also inclined to accept strong feelings or compelling thoughts arising out of any form of experience as significant, even divinely inspired. Whether we are a conservative responding to an altar call at a Billy Graham crusade or a liberal responding to a call to a different lifestyle, the urgency of the moment denotes the importance of the event, especially if the experience evoked confirms our underlying commitments.

6. As a people formed politically and spiritually by revolution, we are impatient and impulsive, demanding immediate conversion and putting a high value on any experience that promises rapid renewal, reform, or realignment along the lines of our personal or group interests.

Keeping in mind the points listed above and the many others that could also be added, we are faced with a profound dilemma. The frail human enterprise we call knowledge depends upon event, encounter, and experience reported, reviewed, recorded, and recollected. Everything, from the tiniest bit of experimentally verified science to the esoteric estimates of the infinite, must pass through the multi-faceted lens of experience, including all our personal, cultural, and ideological biases.

Those of us in Christian circles turn to God to help us with our obvious weaknesses. We trace the divine hand in the countless witnesses, from ancient times to the present, who see and hear in Jesus Christ a unique, abiding Word; who, in the Trinitarian expression of our faith, suffuses our experience with trustworthy substance beyond all our experiences. And, who calls into being his Body, the Church, which both inherits the faithful experiences of the past and discerns the faithfulness of experiences of the present. Without the discernment of the Christian community actively led by the Spirit of Christ, we believers have no certainty about what is happening in our lives.


William P. Tarbell is pastor of Saluda Church in Saluda, S.C. He was a candidate for stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2008.

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