(For context, click on the topic: Introduction, Scripture, Reason, Tradition.)
Experience is the final ingredient in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Experience is a subservient facet of this quartet as it bows to truth and primarily works, according to Wesley, to aid our understanding of the Bible’s revelation of truth. Experience is not, however, unimportant; as it is validated by the Scriptures, it is a witness to the reality of God. Wesley saw the function of Experience as a way to bring the high level truths declared by Scripture, passed down through Tradition, and understood through Reason to a personal and impactful level through empirical evidence in the life of the believer.
My Pentecostal upbringing has, perhaps, caused some bit of apprehension in me. Not with regard to experience as a legitimate part of worship or Christianity, but as a tool of affirmation in theological construction. Experience’s role, in my life, is one of exploration. Where I “feel” something I begin to search using the other three methods mentioned in the Quadrilateral. I cannot see experience – in the sense of “experiencing something” – as an end-point due to its subjective nature. Much like the gold-rush 49’ers of the American west, either by historical experience or a sensory experience (“I can feel it in my bones”), I make a proposal where treasure is and then utilize the more stable tools to actually do the digging. Christianity seems to swing back and forth from movement to movement, and even generationally at times, between too much emphasis on experience and not enough. I believe that this is, for the most part, because experience is being used as a tool for affirmation instead of initiation. In my search for theological truth I have to view experience as a predictive function, not an authenticating one.
With all of that more technical and heady talk finished, I would be short-sheeting this issue if I didn’t, at least briefly, clarify my position. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is not a regulative principle for worship, and it is not a “midnight hour” source of sustainability in our lives. The Quadrilateral is a good and decent system by which we come to understand what we believe. But, in the hallways of the everyday, and in the valleys of every night, this idea of Experience holds a different level of importance to us. I believe, for a myriad of reasons, that God touches our lives. I believe that part of Jesus’ meaning as He lauded His “going away” ushering in the advent of the Holy Spirit, was because we as individuals have the potential for a very personal, and dare I say intimate, relationship with God. The cross that Christ suffered on brought us something that is theologically known as “reconciliation”. Simply, we don’t have to be separated from God anymore because Jesus closed the gap for us though His death. We can know and be known. God comes near to us. James tells us that as we “draw near to God” He responds in like manner. Paul, in Ephesians, rejoices that the dividing wall of hostility, the separating force of sin, was defeated on the cross and by the spilled blood of the Man from Nazareth, the Man from Heaven. We are no longer strangers, but we are daughters and sons; and like any good Father, God embraces us often, expresses His love for us, and assures us that He will always be there for us.
As I stated above, I base very little truth on “feelings” and what I experience existentially. But, I wouldn’t exchange the moments that I have been tangibly aware of the presence of God for anything in the entire world. The experience of God is a unique thing, it cannot be counterfeited with any success. It can be copied and even imitated with marginal success, but those who know the life-altering, world-changing, peace-infusing presence of their Creator can spot impostors. And I’m not even saying that every “good sensation” is attempting to replace the presence of God, but at their very best all they can do is point to a greater love, a greater satisfaction, a greater experience, a greater joy. These lesser-lovers are mere echoes of the original shout of gladness that we will one day hear with our own perfected ears.