Experience and Discernment

A few weeks ago, I read part of Luke Timothy Johnson’s book Scripture and Discernment, which from the title would appear to be just the sort of treatment of discernment that a monk ought to welcome.  I couldn’t agree with everything in the book, however, and indeed certain premises seemed rather problematic, especially what I took to be the privileging of ‘experience’ and the need to take experience into account when discerning what God is calling us to in our life of discipleship.

On the one hand, this sounds reasonable enough; indeed, St. Bernard, among others especially in the Cistercian tradition of spirituality, likes to ask us to examine our experience to see how it accords with the truths of faith.

But what, exactly is ‘experience’?  It is not as easy to define as we might think, once we examine it.  How do we interpret experience?  We have a tendency, I think, to imagine that our experiences are somehow ‘pure’, not determined by social factors or the limits of our cultural formation, and that they are informative as such.  But consider two people watching the same movie.  One hates it, the other loves it.  Did they not have something like the same experience?  In terms of simple ‘data’, they surely did.  But each interpreted this raw data through all kinds of personal filters.  Which one’s experience is authentic?  Perhaps in some sense both of them are, but surely they won’t be able to convince each other.

And when we turn this sort of analysis upon experiences that affect us more deeply than mere artistic preference, we run into major problems.  Among the experiences that are challenging the Church at present would be those such as: experiencing a call to regularize same-sex unions; women and married men experiencing what they understand to be a call to the ministerial priesthood; or  the experience of liturgy being dull and finding experimental liturgy or traditional liturgy to be exciting or more sacred.  Whether and to what extent these experiences are predetermined by cultural factors and previous formation are questions that seem to be hard to ask in these cases.

In monastic discernment, one’s efforts in the early going involve slowing life down a bit and stepping back from interpreting experience too quickly.  Discernment of spirits means learning to identify the often hidden wellsprings of our thoughts that move us to certain types of judgments about life that contribute to what we term ‘experience’.  We discover frequently that experiences that we considered central and important to our spiritual development can appear quite problematic in retrospect, even if God used them at the time for His purposes.  In lectio divina and in the liturgy, we learn to align our experiences with that of Jesus Christ and His Mystical Body, the Church, and thus to read experience ‘spiritually’, with a habituation to God’s ways of acting in our lives.  This is painstaking and exacting work: we must renounce certain types of experiences, in fact.  We even label certain experiences ‘temptation’, experiences of desires and thoughts that our spiritual seniors will identify as moving us away from God.  Temptations usually appear under the guise of some good: otherwise we wouldn’t entertain them.  But the inner life is full of illusions and wishful thinking; this is why we work to remold experience in the light of the solid food of good spiritual teaching.  We put on the new nature by the renewal of our minds; we must be very reticent about calling the Church to change based on what may well be our old nature presenting itself in clever disguise.

After mentioning Johnson’s book at a community recreation, I was guided by one of the brothers to a debate between him and Eve Tushnet, an exchange that appeared in Commonweal and well worth reading.  Tushnet makes my point more convincingly than I do.  See it here.

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