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
“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.”
As humans, we need to make judgements, all day, every day. We’re hardwired for it – that’s how we learn to survive. This need to judge too easily carries over into moral judgements. I don’t agree with Roberts’ “walk a mile in his shoes” approach; it would paralyze us. We often need to judge. Personally, I believe we are called upon to judge. Submitting such judgement to Scripture is what Christians ought to do. Being sinful and finite means we can distort it to suit our desires for a moral road map that *pleases us*. A possible solution is, again, Scriptural, but more limiting than using all of Scripture.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
This is among my favorite verses. Some commentators interpret this as, “Do not have a censorious spirit”. Certainly that’s good advice (see that judgement?). But I prefer a slightly stricter interpretation of the Final Judge’s words. When you must judge, imagine you are the party being judged. Then judge as you would want to be judged, dish out as you would want it dished out to you. With any empathy at all, following that advice, we would all judge with much more love and much more care, and maybe even “let the scale incline towards the side of merit or acquittal.” (Taylor)
This, my adopted yardstick, has placed me in some contentious spots with my mostly leaning-toward-fundamentalism Evangelical friends. But I don’t mind. Jesus will be the righteous and final judge. ‘Till then, I want to lean towards love.
Sounds good to me. One little clarification, I’d have is to makes sure people know that Roberts’ isn’t advocating for the ethics of empathy but rather outlining and critiquing it. Thanks for the comments!
Gosh, I’m doing this a lot lately. I need to stop commenting so late at night. Sorry.
No worries, I should have been clearer in the post itself. And your own comments were very helpful.
For some further reading, you might want to check out Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics. Obviously the topic is more in the vein of Apologetics, but his writing on the effects of the Fall on the entirety of the human – logic, experience, etc. – in relation to that is fascinating.
Westminster Seminarians are going to shove him down your throat as the pinnacle of Apologetics, which I am not necessarily all about, but he is pretty good.
If you end up liking that, check out some of his student’s works which are further developed and a lot easier to understand, particularly Scott Oliphant or John Frame.
Thanks for the tip. Yeah, I keep hearing about Van Til and depending on who is talking about him, usually he’s either the best thing ever, or he’s incoherent and doesn’t make sense.
He’s certainly not easy to slog through – English isn’t his first language. But he has set the tone for most modern, Reformed approaches to Apologetics, so there is a payoff. Personally, I like his students more (most famous moment of theirs is going to be the Greg Bahnsen-Gordon Stein debate) … but for the topic relating more to your post, Van Til develops that aspect more than his students.
See, and I read a transcript of that debate and was not a fan. I saw where Bahnsen was trying to go, but he just came off really jerkish in some parts, and then, in others, he probably could have simply corrected Stein easy enough on others before going on to make his transcendental point.
I won’t argue that, the theological snobbery and pride tends to be my biggest issue with a lot of WTS. Additionally, the irony behind a lot of the Reformed apologetics crowd is a little scary in that you are dealing with defending the faith in a context that is pretty much guaranteed not to reach anyone. I do prefer Frame and Oliphant for their graciousness. (Frame moreso, I had the opportunity to go to an Oliphant lecture and he’s pretty awesome, though still has that WTS chip-on-the-shoulder)
But for a shorter read, check out Machen’s Warrior Children, it’s an essay of his that is now freely available online – http://www.frame-poythress.org/machens-warrior-children/ – where he addresses a lot of that “jerkish” attitude that runs in a lot of Reformed circles. He looks at it more internally than externally, but it’s a good reminder to make sure that our theology always points us back to Christ and worship for Him, not our own pride in “being right.”
I’ll do that. Thanks!
Not a problem! I really enjoy the blog, thanks for writing.