G-d in experience?
An essential piece of any conception of mysticism is experience. What are we talking about when we use the word experience? Because objections to mystical religion often quickly surface—e.g., the perennial difficulties with experience: discernment and falsifiability/authority. What of enthusiasm?
Nuts and bolts
Drawing heavily from Randy Maddox’s work concerning John Wesley’s understanding of experience, I wrote in the theological method section of my Credo—the summary paper required for an MDiv from SPST at that time (2004)—regarding a “spectrum” [proto–‘mobius’] of experience:
Experience. Our final category, “experience,” is even more complex than tradition. Randy Maddox has identified six ways that Wesley used the term ‘experience’ in his writings. Maddox marks Wesley’s first category of experience as “conscious awareness of being affected by an event or action.”19 This use directly correlates with my expression, ‘self-conscious awareness.’ Wesley’s second use, according to Maddox, is as “sympathetic understanding derived from similar subjective experience.”20 This is a felt-correspondence dimension of experience by which we are able to imagine the present self-conscious awareness of another through familiarity with our own experience of a like circumstance. For example, we are able to imagine how someone is feeling with regard to a particular loss if we have experienced a similar loss. The third category of experience for Wesley, on Maddox’s typology, is “practical skill developed through repeated performance.”21 This category of experience describes a familiarity with a particular action or process through a history of practiced engagement with that action or process. Experienced professionals, crafts-persons or artisans all provide fine examples of this category, i.e., ‘she is an experienced dancer.’ Closely related to the third, says Maddox, is the fourth category of experience, “practical/moral wisdom derived from life-long learning.”22 This category reflects the cumulative effects of living on personal wisdom. The fifth category Maddox defines as a “practical test or trial as a means of determining truth.”23 This folkloric form of “test or trial” stands in distinction to the early scientism that Maddox finds in the sixth category of experience, “observation of facts or events as a source of knowledge.”24 However, according to Maddox, for Wesley, this sixth category reflected what was thought of as ‘common sense’ as much as the scientific method.25
My sense of ‘experience’ would include those of Wesley and I do find Maddox’s typology a helpful nuance of the term. However, I resist any tendency to chunk-out or dismember these dimensions of experience to any degree that dissociates their internal and external mutual-interdependence. I would tend to think of experience as a spectrum of perspectives ranging from purely subjective—i.e., self-conscious awareness (category-one)—to purely inter-subjective—i.e., revealed wisdom (perichoretic relation of categories one through six within both individual human beings and humanity; with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts). For example, Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ mediated through archetypes would be one attempted expression of this.
This ‘spectrum’ integrates the internal and external dimensions of experience while favoring neither. I would suggest that this move validates category-one experience and places it in a relational matrix that creates a measure of verifiable authenticity to purely subjective self-conscious awareness, i.e., the move validates our I-ness while creating an organic check against raw enthusiasm.26 Category-one experience meets Karl Popper through the guise of Wesley’s “Christian conferencing.”27
19-24 Maddox in Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation, Gunter, et al., 108-112.
25 Maddox quotes Wesley, “No, but by my common sense. I know it by the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I have seen a considerable part of it; and I have abundant testimony, such as excludes all possible doubt, for what I have not seen.” Maddox in Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation, Gunter, et al., 112.
26 Far from being subsumed into a totalitarian bondage, the teleological nature of the inclination to be in relation with God, i.e., to care, is realized in true human identity. As Martin Buber writes, “As a Person God gives personal life, he [sic] makes us as persons become capable of meeting with him and with one another. But no limitation can come upon him as the absolute Person, either from us or from our relations with one another; in fact we can dedicate to him not merely our persons but also our relations to one another. The man who turns to him therefore need not turn away from any other I-Thou relation; but he properly brings them to him, and lets them be fulfilled ‘in the face of God.’” Cf., Martin Buber, I and Thou, Ronald Gregor Smith, trans. (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1958), 136.
27 Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, an imprint of Abingdon Press, 1994), 212-13.
I know. In defense, I was all seminaried-up.
We’ll unpack this a bit next time.
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?