Experience Counts by William Droel

Catholic philosophers of the mid-20th century known as the Personalists improved upon an older top-down notion of truth. Yes, truth comes from God. However, revelation does not come entirely from above. God’s truth (the incarnation) is for all time embedded in human experience. The newer approach appreciates that God’s truth arises from and corresponds to real, important questions within our daily lives.

For many years Catholicism assumed that God’s truth came down from on high. Then, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it was interpreted and proclaimed by way of the church, through our bishops. This approach rightly meant that standards were fixed. However, the certitude of its interpretation presumed that a few people could know the full, static will of God. The interpretation sometimes delved into quite arcane matters, using technical terms and distinctions foreign to common people.

Our society currently adheres to an opposite view of truth. It is called utilitarian relativism or cost-benefit analysis. Truth in our society depends on the perception of an individual or on a circle of executives or a team of news editors or a vocal group of students or some trend among celebrities. Standards depend on the situation and the estimated outcome. For all its popularity, relativism is unsustainable. It favors opportunists who play the short-term game. It leaves too much to individual interpretation. It can easily define deviancy down.

The mid-20th-century philosophers who improved our understanding of God’s revelation did not endorse relativism in any way. The new bottom-up approach does not mean that truth is derived from feelings or even from a thoroughly audited vote or any other type of soft relativism. Faithful to Scripture, the bottom-up approach compliments the responsibility of bishops to teach the truth.

In summary, Christianity’s former bias toward abstractions, prototypes, blueprints, static policies, previous absolute formulae, cookie-cutter solutions, standard procedures, preset rules, protocol, agency policy, and old-time programs now must consider real-life experience. The new approach warns church leaders to abandon their older, tiresome habit of answering questions that no one asks. The new approach celebrates creativity, research, expansion, complexity, dynamism, and what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter”: one-to-one and group-to-group dialogue across neighborhoods, cities, ethnicities, ages, and genders. An accumulation of experience combined with sustained reflection improves our understanding of God’s truth, says the newer approach.

A substantial number of baptized Catholics now reject the church. Among other reasons, many do so because the church’s presentation of God’s truth does not resonate with them. To repeat: This is not to say that the content of the older presentation is wrong. The disconnection is because church leaders often insist on a method and terminology that is foreign to young adults. For their part, young adults don’t bother to construct an alternative spiritual method and language for our time.

A starting place, in my opinion, is the discovery of God’s truth as contained in music, drama, science, engineering, sex, commerce, and other so-called worldly activities. Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) is the author of the widely read The Imitation of Christ. Though parts of this book might be helpful, its bias (and that of several contemporary Christian teachers) must be rejected. God “instructs [us] to despise earthly things, to loath present things,” Imitation of Christ advises. No. God from all eternity has been at ease with human joy and striving. God’s church cannot therefore be aloof from or opposed to the world. The secular is sacred in a real sense.

A church that relates to the deep concerns of young adults cannot be equated only with clergy and other church employees. The church is all of us who go about doing our best on the job, in the community, and for our family. The church is those of us who want to have a meaningful life, to put our questions into a context. The church is two friends who meet at the diner and share their sorrow, frustration, joy, and insight.

Our own experience contains some of God’s truth. How do we process that experience? Where do we find regular forums in which faith in daily life is explored? What language is there for us to take our isolated incidents and frame them into meaningful experience? Where are the storytellers to help us? These are the guiding questions for the church in our time. ♦

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here). His book Public Friendship can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5).

Image: Juri Gianfrancesco / Unsplash

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1 reply
  1. Slip Palumbos
    Slip Palumbos says:

    Find analysis of what’s going on these days, Bill. I like the depth from which you draw and your unbridled affirmation of the word made flesh in our experience. Keep on writing!


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