Since beginning this blog, I’ve had reason to note the character of online discussion, argument, and debate more carefully than I have in the past. One theme that I’ve wanted to give some attention to has been the increasingly normative place that is given to unique experiences as conferring authority to speak on certain moral matters. I was this close to writing a masterful piece discussing the issue, but then I found that, once again, Alastair Roberts already had.
In a wonderful article speaking into the issue of the recent “purity culture” debates, Roberts points to the root of this mode of argument as an “ethics of empathy”:
At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people bravely and authentically articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either…
Expanding on this, he writes:
For many of those who place great weight upon personal experience as the locus of truth, the application of frameworks of judgment to contexts beyond our experience can be a cardinal sin. Moral judgments are illegitimate unless we have walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, seen what they have seen, and experienced what they have experienced. For instance, we have never been in the position of the terminally ill person in acute pain, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of euthanasia. We may never have been pregnant in poverty without a partner to support us, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of abortion. We may never have experienced what it is like be trapped in a loveless marriage, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of divorce. We may never have experienced the sexual frustration of living with a spouse who cannot fulfill our sexual needs, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of monogamy. We may never have experienced the hopelessness of the aging unmarried person, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of chastity…
I’m going to have to restrain myself from simply quoting the whole post, because that would just be pointless. I do encourage you to go read it, though.
Paraphrasing Alasdair MacIntyre, the question I’m always tempted to ask of those wielding the experience trump card is “Whose Experience? Which Story?” Why is your experience the valid one? Why is your story the compelling narrative to which my judgments on X moral subject must submit? Why not my experiences and story? Or what about those of my neighbor who disagrees with you? What about the experiences those long-dead? Or those with a different gender? Or those in other countries? Or…you get the point.
My point isn’t to rule out the place of story and personal experience in moral reflection, but to question the weight we currently give it. As Roberts observes, in our current climate, our stories and experiences seem to take on unquestionable moral status, especially if it is one of hurt, oppression, or pain; they are sacred and inviolable. Have you been oppressed by a pastor who was harshly disciplinarian and are now vehemently opposed to any sort of church discipline at all? Well, why is that experience the one that’s normative over against the person whose church was morally-destroyed because of pastoral unwillingness to exercise any discipline at all? We can find both experiences, and many in-between, so why ought we listen to one over the other? If we’re not going to simply lean on the cliched “It’s true for me, but not for you” mantra, we have to deal with the issue of how we judge or accommodate the interpretive pluralism of experience.
This is far from a complete treatment of the subject, but a few quick thoughts:
First, Roberts points out that Jesus and Paul, two unmarried, single men seem to have plenty to say about situations like marriage, parenting, etc. in which they’ve never participated. That’s not to say they hadn’t been around them or given them deep thought, but the Bible doesn’t seem to share the whole, “If you haven’t been in exactly my shoes, you can’t speak to me” philosophy. In fact, he goes on to point out that often-times what we need most is an outside observer who isn’t immediately involved in the situation to help us think things through a bit. While there are times that experience is precisely what gives us insight into a situation we might not have otherwise, in others it is precisely our non-involvement that enables us to judge rightly.
Second, I’d like to restate a point I’ve made in another piece: “while it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.” It also means that we live in the same moral and theological world. We can talk to each other about right and wrong, sin and righteousness, grace and redemption even if our particulars are different.
Of course, this can only happen if we understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience. We need to see that in the Bible we have THE normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story get the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited or sinfully twisted like ours. Only his judgments are pure and wholly true, because only he knows the end from the beginning, and the ends for which he began all things.
Soli Deo Gloria