This post is the fourth in a series which explores how to integrate spirituality and science. The series begins by drawing on the fourfold Wesleyan approach to the quest for truth. This Wesleyan quadrilateral, as it is known, consists of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. These four ways of knowing invite us to integrate spirituality and scientific inquiry. In this post we investigate the fourth part of the quadrilateral: Experience.
For previous posts go to:
Why The Bible Is Not A Magic Book.
Why Ancient Traditions Are Right Up To Date
Why Reason Is An Important Source Of Truth
My father-in-law had some stories to tell! He fought in World War II, was captured by the Nazi’s, spent time as a prisoner-of-war, escaped by jumping off a moving train, and then joined the partisan resistance in Italy. And that’s just the summary.
These experiences shaped him and his view of the world, and I learned much from his perspectives. My wife wanted to ensure that his stories were not lost and so she asked him to write his memoirs. Those pages are still a treasured possession in our family.
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
Spirituality, at its best, teaches us to be mindful and reflective. When we are able to review and learn from our experiences, we become more capable of navigating future challenges and more compassionate toward others. And when we can reflect as we go through our experiences, we learn to see patterns and connections, and be more thoughtful and intentional in our responses.
The great gift of human relationship, communication, and record-keeping means that we can learn not only from our own personal experiences, but from the stories of others, both dead and alive. Such learning from experience is at the heart of all transforming spiritual paths, but it is also foundational to the scientific method.
Scientists are constantly building both on their own work and on the discoveries of those who have gone before them. Their own experiences are informed by those of others and their knowledge is shaped by learning that reaches back into millennia past.
WHEN EXPERIENCE IS DISMISSED
Tragically many spiritual communities dismiss experience as a valid source of truth. Years ago a Christian pastor told me that, “If your experience contradicts the word of God, then it’s your experience that’s wrong.” This is exactly the kind of thinking that has allowed for gaslighting and abuse in so many religious communities. It is time that we learn to listen, and listen deeply, to the experiences of people for whom the world is not safe, kind, or welcoming. It is time that we listen to, and learn from, the experiences of those who have walked a different path from our own. And it is time that we value our own experiences as valid and valuable sources of truth.
It is important to remember, though, that every experience must be interpreted. What happens to us is not the same as the meaning we make of it. That’s why scientific research includes stringent guidelines for how results are to be interpreted and documented. When it comes to spiritual experiences there are both scientific and sacred practices that can help us be more careful and thoughtful.
- Communities can be sacred custodians of collective experiences and of centuries-old wisdom. When we interpret our experiences together, in the light of history, we benefit greatly from the discernment of others.
- One of the ways the sciences seek to ensure good interpretations is through ‘Record-keeping’. Journaling is perhaps the best equivalent as a spiritual practice. When we record our experiences we can ensure we don’t forget important details, but we can also return to our experiences and check if our interpretations remain intact over time.
- The sciences also rely on healthy scepticism. Findings are not just accepted. They are tested, replicated if possible, and verified. I believe such healthy scepticism could be valuable when approaching spiritual (and other) experiences too.
An intentional and thorough engagement with our own personal experiences can be a rich source of wisdom and guidance. And an intentional and thorough engagement with the experiences of others, both past and present, can open us to truth beyond our own.
- How have you learned from your experiences?
- How can you be more intentional and thorough in reflecting on, and drawing wisdom from, your experiences?
Leave your responses in the comments below and let’s learn together. Over to you!
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