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The experience of God: an invitation to do theology

30 November, 1999

Dermot Lane invites Christians to deepen their faith by exploring some of the fundamental issues of contemporary theology, such as the religious meaning of experience, the nature of Christian revelation and the place of grace and faith in Christian life.

 112 pp, Veritas, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


1. Experience, God and theology
2. The nature and revelation
3. The active of faith


The experience of God: an invitation to do theology is a balanced synthesis of present-day thinking on issues such as experience and God, revelation and history, faith and unbelief. Theology emerges as an exciting adventure available to all.

This revised edition will be of interest to students of theology, catechists, religious, priests and adult Christians wishing to deepen their faith.

CHAPTER 1: Experience, God and theology
My ultimate purpose, in all that I have written, is but to say this one simple thing to my readers – whether they know it or not, whether they reflect on it or not, human beings are always and everywhere, in all times and places, oriented and directed to that ineffable mystery we call God (Karl Rahner) (1)

New experiences of God, shaped by already held beliefs, in turn will ‘correct’ one’s previous interpretation of those beliefs and thereby enrich future possible experiences (Ormond Rush) (2)

One of the most significant developments in Christian theology in the twentieth century has been the recovery of experience as an integral element in the exercise of theology. This development is especially remarkable in Catholic theology in view of the fact that not so long ago there was something of a magisterial ban against the use of experience in theology. This distrust of the appeal to experience was brought about by the Modernist crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century. During that time a rather narrow, psychological and subjectivist understanding of experience was in existence. As a result the unfortunate impression was given that theology was simply an outgrowth of experience in this narrow sense. This outlook was condemned in 1907 by Pope Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. By way of reaction against Modernism Catholic theology deliberately isolated itself from historical, social, scientific and cultural developments. Barriers were erected between life and theology. Something of a divorce took place between theory and practice. Grace and nature became exclusive opposites. The argument from authority assumed absolute significance. This kind of apartheid was inconsistent with the witness of the theological tradition and Christian living. It could not be followed through rigorously and therefore could not last for long. Gradually in the early 1940s and 1950s theology once again moved outwards towards the other sciences. Similarities as well as differences between theology and the other sciences emerged. Soon it became clear that theology was concerned not only with the passing on of Scripture and tradition, but also with some form of critical correlation between human experience and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today most discussions about the nature of theology among Catholic theologians include reference somewhere along the line to the role of human experience. David Tracy argues convincingly that the principal sources of fundamental theology are ‘the Christian fact and contemporary experience’. (3) Michael Schmaus points out that faith, which is the material object of theology, ‘is impossible without some measure of understanding and experience’. (4) Karl Rahner asks provocatively: ‘If Christianity is nothing other than the clear expression of what man experiences indistinctly in his actual being… what reason could I have then not to be a Christian’ (5) Edward Schillebeeckx asserts that ‘the world of human experience is the only access to the saving reality of revelation and faith… How could we listen to a revelation from God, how could it be a revelation to man if it falls outside our experience?’ (6) Bernard Lonergan holds that experience, ‘especially repeated experience, of one’s frailty or wickedness raises the question of one’s salvation and, on a more fundamental level, there arises the question of God’. (7)

At the same time, these theologians are careful to point out that this relationship between theology and experience does not imply in any sense a reduction of theology to experience. (8) Obviously a real difference exists between claiming that theology is related to human experience and holding that theology is simply an outgrowth of human experience. Perhaps even more significant is the way that the language of experience over the years has come back into official Church documents. (9) Pope John Paul II in his first encyclical, reminds us that the ‘Church’s fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct man’s gaze, to point awareness and experience of the whole of humanity toward the mystery of God’. (10)

An equally strong concern about the importance of experience, though perhaps less remarkable from an historical point of view, also exists in Protestant theology. The legacies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and William James continue to be enjoyed and refined by modern Protestant theology. According to Paul Tillich: ‘The question of experience … has been central … whenever the nature and method of theology have been discussed’. (11) He describes experience as ‘the medium through which the sources of theology speak to us’. (12) For Tillich ‘experience receives and does not produce’ in theology. (13) Langdon Gilkey develops an impressive introduction to theology out of an analysis of human experience which enables him to conclude: ‘all religious talk … is talk about the ultimate and the sacred as it appears in ordinary experience’. (14) He constructs this introduction by uncovering a dimension of ultimacy in our secular experiences of contingency, relativity, temporality and autonomy. (15) John E. Smith argues persuasively that the disclosure of God to the world takes place in and through human experience. (16) For Smith, human experience is the key to understanding religious truth. (17)

This development in Catholic theology during the twentieth century, coupled with the centrality of experience in Protestant theology, calls for some discussion and clarification.

The appeal to experience has become so commonplace that it is now in danger of becoming vacuous. The word ‘experience’ is, to say the least, a rather slippery one. It can be made to mean just about anything one wishes it to mean. If experience is to become a genuine source of theology in the light of Scripture, tradition and the authority of the Christian community, then there is a pressing need for precision in the use we make of and the meaning we attach to experience. What do we mean by the appeal to experience in theology? Is such an appeal to experience in danger of becoming a subjective cloak or even worse a new smokescreen against critical reflection? The purpose of this opening chapter is to clarify the meaning of the word ‘experience’, to explore the different kinds of experience that are possible in life, to examine the peculiar character of religious experience, to discuss the relationship that exists between experience and doctrine, and to suggest some basic criteria for evaluating religious experiences. It is hoped that a treatment of these issues will throw a little critical light on the use we make of experience in theology and perhaps advance the way forward toward some ecumenical agreement on how Christian theology is done as well as providing a point of departure for inter-religious dialogue. In this way we will be laying the critical foundations for a theology, in subsequent chapters, of the interplay that exists between revelation and faith in experience.

The meaning of experience
We can begin our exploration of the meaning of experience by excluding at the outset the more obviously deficient uses of the word. (18) For some, experience is synonymous with reference to a form of subjective emotionalism. Here experience is reduced to the level of euphoric outbursts of transient emotions. Such phenomena may be the result of a passing psychological mood or they may be induced by artificial external stimuli. In either case we are dealing with a situation that is temporary, superficial and unrepresentative of the normal human condition. To this extent such experiences cannot be regarded as reliable channels of human understanding. Others restrict the word ‘experience’ to the passive reception of sense-data out there. Here experience is confined exclusively to a direct contact with the empirically given world. This empiricist view of experience must also be rejected because of the large areas of life that are automatically excluded. A third and not untypical view of experience is one which says that language determines the character of all human experience. Not only is language descriptive of human experience, but it is also prescriptive of human experience. The language we use in life determines the kind of experiences we have of the world around us. (19) This particular outlook, even though it does contain some truth, must also be put aside at this stage because it ignores the spontaneity of experience and the drive inherent in such experiences for new expression. These restrictive accounts of experiences alert us to some of the more obvious pitfalls that are around when trying to work out a critical theology of experience. What then are the basic ingredients of a human experience? Experience involves first and foremost a human subject and reality. By a human subject we mean an individual self that is capable of seeing, feeling, thinking and discerning. The element of feeling, as distinct from emotion, is important in the life of the human subject. On the other hand the word ‘reality’ embraces the external world as composed of spirit and matter in which the subject lives. Following on this there must be some form of conscious encounter between the subject and reality if there is to be any genuine experience. The word ‘encounter’ suggests a degree of contact between the subject and the world. It implies that within experience we find something already there; we come up against reality as given, and therefore prior to us. We confront persons and events in the world and we do so in such a way that we receive whatever it is that we encounter without being responsible for producing what we receive. Encounter, however, is only the beginning of experience since within encounter we do not move beyond the surface of reality. Reality has more to it than surfaces; it also has depth and breadth.

Moving from encounter we must go on to posit a process of interaction between the subject and reality. It is through this process of interaction that experience begins to actualise itself as event in the life of the subject. The interaction is composed of a chain of events. These include a response or reaction from the subject, as conscious subject, toward reality. Following on this, reality is refracted or broken back upon the subject. This in turn evokes a process of critical reflection in the subject.

Experience, therefore, is the outcome of the interaction that takes place between the subject and reality. Experience should not be located as something simply within the subject who looks at life but rather as the outcome resulting from critical interaction between the subject and reality. This qualification excludes the reduction of experience to what Heidegger once called the mere ‘gawking’ at objects lying ‘out there’. Experience is a more complex process; it is the critical assessment of reality by the subject through the movements of response, refraction and critical reflection. Within experience there is always a reciprocal flow between the subject and reality which creates a new relationship, a new level of personal participation, a deepened form of awareness and understanding in the life of the individual. Thus experience is never merely subjective or objective. Such is a false antithesis. It is, instead, that which emerges out of a living relationship between the subject and reality.

A basic characteristic of experience is that no one experience discloses the totality of reality. Repeated experiences, no matter how contrasting, are a necessary component in the process of understanding reality. A succession of similar experiences can have a cumulative effect on human understanding. A certain pattern may emerge within experience, and this, in turn, can give rise to insight and new understanding. Past experiences affect present experiences and present experiences influence future experiences. Every experience exercises a critical function in relation to other experiences. This holds true as a basic principle in regard to both one’s own experiences and the experience of others.

An important factor in any theory of experience is the role that the community plays. This role is two fold. On the one hand the community provides the overall horizon of understanding within which human experiences begins to make sense. There can be no such thing as a ‘pure’ experience without reference to some elements of understanding. Experience without understanding is an empty event. T.S. Eliot points out this danger in the following way; ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’. (20)

A real distinction does in fact exist between having an experience and knowing that you are having an experience. The essential element of understanding that is brought to bear on human experience is usually the inherited wisdom of the community we live in and the tradition we have been brought up in. Prior to experience this horizon of understanding, derived from the community, exists in a pre-critical and pre-reflective form. (21) After experience and in the light of multiple experiences the individual critically and reflectively appropriates the horizon of understanding belonging to his or her community. This transition from a pre-critical to a post-critical level of understanding is essential to the growth of the individual in the life of the community. In fact it is only through different experiences that the emergence of an individualised self-consciousness and personal identity takes place. We do not come into the world with a readymade self. Rather we enter life with a capacity to become which is shaped by our experiences of reality. We leave the world with a constituted self shaped by the experiences we have undergone. The self develops out of experiences with reality, especially the reality of the human community composed of other selves.

On the other hand, having undergone this movement from a pre-critical to a post-critical level of understanding, the individual is still dependent on the collective wisdom of the community. Individual experiences must be tried and tested against the corporate experiences of the community. In most cases the community acts as a guide for understanding the significance of human experience. This does not mean that individuals are necessarily tied to the wisdom of anyone particular community. They are always free to move beyond or outside the community to which they originally belonged. If they do this, however, they must move into some other community which will act as norm to their experiences. Individuals as individuals cannot critically assess their own experiences without reference to some other group or community. To do otherwise would be to run the risk of arbitrary subjectivism. (22) The very nature of experience as something which is simultaneously subjective and objective requires that the experiencing subject be in touch with some living community.

It should be noted, at this stage, that experience usually contains more than we can fully express or clearly articulate. The interpretation of experience usually falls short of the full content of the experience in question. Often we will return to the same experience from a slightly different angle in an attempt to grasp more of its full significance. And yet the totality of an experience is always greater than the sum of its individual parts. The implications of an experience can take time to unfold, and it may happen that the real significance of an experience only emerges at a later stage in the life of an individual.

These preliminary remarks about the meaning of experience apply to all human experiences whether one is talking about science or philosophy or theology. Clearly experience within this framework is a uniquely formative element. Furthermore, experience is the basic source of all human understanding, including religious understanding. In summary, the individual is what he or she experiences, and ‘things are what they are experienced as’. (23) In the words of Henry James:

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne article in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind. (24)

It is against this background on the meaning of experience that we can now distinguish the existence of the different kinds of experiences.

A classification of different kinds of human experience
Obviously the individual is capable of undergoing a wide variety of human experiences in life. Broadly speaking these experiences may be divided into primary and secondary experiences, or what are sometimes called ordinary and extraordinary experiences, (25) or what others refer to as outer and inner experiences. (26) Perhaps the clearest classification is simply that of sense-experience and depth experience.

Ordinary experiences may be described as those everyday subject-object encounters we have in life. These experiences are primarily sense experiences and do not go beyond the external surface of life. Such experiences cover the coming and going of everyday activity. However, in addition to this external sense contact with the world, there are those special moments when we go below the surface of life to discover a deeper dimension which is not immediately evident. These extraordinary experiences disclose the existence of a ‘depth dimension’ in human existence. (27) This ‘depth dimension’ in life is the point where we discover such diverse realities as meaning, value, goodness, beauty, and truth. The discovery of these realities is made through the mediation of an ordinary human experience. As such the discovery is always indirect. We do not experience truth as an object like an apple hanging from a tree.

Bernard Lonergan distinguishes between the world of immediate experience and the world mediated by meaning. (28) The world of immediate experience is the world in which the child moves and lives; it is the given world composed of the everyday sense data of seeing, touching and hearing. In contrast, the world mediated by meaning is the world of the adult; it is the world intended by questions, organised by intelligence, described by imagination and language, and enriched by tradition. The movement by the individual from the world of immediate experience to the world mediated by meaning brings about a change in the life of the subject. Lonergan likens the transition from one world into the other world to the move by Plato’s prisoners from the cave composed of dark images to the universe of light and brightness. (29) The change requires a real adjustment in the life of the individual. For one thing it alters the quality of self-consciousness. In addition it opens up the invisible presence of a whole new world of meaning. The world of meaning is not immediately or directly available to the individual. This does not mean that this world is less real. If anything it seems to suggest that ‘the really real’ world is the world that lies both within and at the same time beyond the everyday world given in immediate ordinary experience. This movement by the subject from a world of objects out there into a world mediated by meaning opens up new horizons of human understanding.

It is within the realm of this new world of meaning generated by secondary, depth-experience that we can begin to talk about what is involved in a religious experience. The underlying characteristic of a religious experience is that individuals find themselves called and drawn into a new relationship with that which is variously termed the Transcendent Other, the Holy, and the Ultimate. From a structural point of view a religious experience follows the same pattern as that of a secondary depth-experience. A disclosure is made through the medium of a human experience. This disclosure is identified with what is called the religious dimension of life. To this extent every religious experience is always a depth-experience, though not every depth-experience is necessarily a religious experience. As a basic principle we can say that a religious experience is at one and the same time an experience of something else. (30) It is this experience of ‘something else’ which serves as the medium disclosing that dimension in life which is called religious. A more accurate way, therefore, of talking about religious experience would be to refer to the ‘religious dimension of human experience’. In practice, however, this expression is often abbreviated into ‘religious experience’. (31) To put this in more traditional terms we might say that every religious experience is a sacramental experience. This account of the different kinds of human experience may be summarised diagrammatically as follow:



1. Karl Rahner im Gespräch, Band 1:1964-1977, edited by Paul Imhof and Hubert Billowons (Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1982) p. 301.
2. O. Rush, ‘Sensus Fidei: Faith “Making Sense” of Revelation’, Theological Studies, June 2001, p.236
3. D. Tracy, ‘The Task of Fundamental Theology’, The Journal of Religion 54 (1974), p.14, Tracy nuances this statement further in Blesses Rage for Order (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p.43 where he points out that ‘there are two sources for theology, common human experience and language, and Christian tests’.
4. M. Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 1 (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968), p.158.
5. K. Rahner, ‘Thoughts on the Possibility of Belief Today’, Theological Investigations (hereafter as TI), vol. 5, (London:DLT, 1966), p.8.
6. E. Schillebeeckx, ‘Faith Functioning in Human Self-Understanding’, in the Word in History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), T. P., Burke (ed.), p. 45. An elaborate account of Schillebeeckx’s understanding of experience may be found in Christ: The Christian Experience in the World (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), pp. 30-64.
7. B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: DLT, 1972), p. 39.
8. K. Rahner, ‘Theology and Anthropology’, TI, vol.9 (1972), pp. 41-42;
E. Schillebeeckx, Understanding of the Faith (London: Sheed and Ward, 1974), p. 17.
9. See the following random sample: Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, n. 24; Verbum Dei, n. 14; Gaudium et spes, n. 10; The General Catechetical Directory, 1971, n. 74; John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, n. 22
10. Redemptor hominis, n. 10.
11. P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 40.
12. Ibid
13. Ibid, p. 46. There seems to be a tension in Tillich’s theology about the precise role of experience. While he does state formally that experience is the medium and not the source of theology (ibid, pp. 34-53) he also gives the impression that experience can act as a source; cf. pp. 43, 46; Vol 3 (1963), pp. 221ff.
14. L. Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind (New York: Babbs-Merrill Company, 1969), p. 465.
15. Ibid., pp.316ff,253ff.
16. J. E. Smith, Experience and God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
17. J. E. Smith, The Analogy of Experience (NewJYork: Harper and Row, 1973).
18. The following account of the meaning of experience is indebted to J. E. Smith, Experience and God, pp. 3-45.
19. P. Winch in The Idea of Social Science (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1953), p. 15 writes: ‘Our idea of what belongs to the realm of reality is given for us in the language that we use. The concepts we have settle for us the form of experience we have of the world.’
20. T.S. Eliot, ‘Dry Salvages’.
21. G. R. Johann, ‘The Return to Experience’, Review of Metaphysics 17 (1963-1964), p. 323.
22. We are assuming here a real distinction between subjectivism, which implies loss of contact with the external world and subjectivity, which arises out of experience with reality.
23. J. Dewey, ‘The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism’, Journal of Philosophy (1907).
24. Quoted in J. Shea, Stories of God (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1978), p. 16.
25. The word’ extraordinary’ should not be taken to refer to sensational or unusual or exceptional or exotic or euphoric experiences. It refers primarily to that which lies both within and beyond ordinary experience.
26. See K. Rahner in K. Rahner and P. Imhof, Ignatius of Loyola (London: Collins, 1979), pp. 15-16.
27. P. Tillich, ‘The Depth of Existence’, The Shaking of the Foundation (London: SCM, 1949), pp. 59-70.
28. B. Lonergan, Method in Theology, pp. 28-31, 238-239, 263.
29. B. Lonergan, ‘The Subject’, Second Collection (London: DLT, 1974),
30. J. E. Smith, Experience and God, p. 52.
31. Ibid, p. 53.

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