Christian Experience and Theology

Author: Angelo Scola


Angelo Scola

The priority of experience over theology is ontological, and this priority reveals plainly that man is primarily and essentially the receiver, not the producer, of truth.

In the history of Catholic thought, especially in our century, there has been a complex, highly nuanced relationship between theology and what we may call <Christian experience.> Scholars are unanimous that the credit for having freed the concept of Christian experience from its principal formative influences—in particular those relating to the Modernist crisis—belongs to Jean Mouroux, who thus enabled theological reflection or experience to go beyond the initial task of legitimating its subject matter. Nevertheless, the complexity attendant upon a careful definition of the two concepts experience and theology—increases prodigiously whenever we try to make a single coherent statement about both. Therefore, it is still necessary to work out a rigorous account of the notion of Christian experience. Only then will we be able to eliminate all the impasses and to set the relationship between experience and theology on a secure enough foundation.

It is not my task here to meet to this challenge. Nevertheless, I want to record a few short reflections on what is commonly understood under the rubric of Christian experience (the entirety of a life lived according to the faith and, therefore, within the community of the Church), in the hope that they may suggest some fruitful clarifications regarding its relationship to theology. My aim is simply to present two brief reflections and some of their implications as a kind of portico leading into the articles on experience in the current issue of <Communio.>

In the first place, we have to remember that Christian experience is ontologically prior to theology. It is theology's proper horizon, whereas the reverse is not the case. Theology, understood as systematic and critical investigation, is in itself incapable of producing Christian experience by its own resources. What is more, theology is born of Christian experience and must ceaselessly refer to the horizon that this experience sets for it. Given this premise, there are good grounds for saying that every crisis of theology—provided that the requirements of its object and the rigor of its method have been ensured—has its ultimate explanation in a crisis of Christian experience.

The foundation of the ontological priority of experience over theology lies in the concept of Christian experience itself. In fact, when we talk about Christian experience, we have to recognize that it contains its own principles of rationality [<razones>], its own <logos>. The truth-criterion of Christian experience is inside this experience itself, not outside or beyond it. Theology sinks its roots in this <logos.> As a science theology is called to serve experience by reflecting critically and systematically, that is, organically, on its immanent <logos>, which is not "produced" by theology. In rendering this service, theology stimulates experience to measure itself against the totality of the <datum> of Revelation as it is attested by the Bible and authentically interpreted by the Magisterium. This fact does away with an extrinsicist, thus originally dualistic, conception of the connection between experience and reason.

"The community of Christian faith," maintains Joseph Ratzinger, "belongs to the Christian concept of faith and reason." Consequently, talk of Christian experience in the comprehensive sense of a life containing its own <logos> necessarily implies a constitutive link with the Christian community, which is the commensurate subject of this experience (<sancta confitetur Ecclesia> [the holy Church confesses]). This subject as communion, which does not absorb the person, but allows him to exist in an ontological correlation with all who have received (by faith and baptism) the grace of participation in the dead and risen Christ. It likewise imparts a distinctive character to the method by which Christian experience begins and unfolds in relation to theology.

The "communional" nature of the subject of Christian experience absolutely precludes confusing it with <praxis.> This is because the original and archetypal experience belongs to the primordial subject, Jesus Christ, and, in him, to all who are "his own." Every authentic human experience of the Christian God is, therefore, objectively included in, and formed by, the experience of Jesus Christ. As a result, the Christian experience of the individual takes the form of a tension towards the totality, hence, of an opening, of a way [<camino>]. Any temptation to lock ourselves into a human measure reduces experience to something partial. This partialness can be overcome only by the "gift from on high," in the Spirit and in faith. Faith bestows the opening towards the totality that is the incarnate Son of God.

We therefore realize that from the methodological point of view the relationship between theology and experience is not, and cannot be identified with, the relationship between theory and <praxis.> Nor can the theologian understand himself as a kind of Christian "organic intellectual" a la Gramsci. In point of fact, the priority of experience over theology is ontological, and this priority reveals plainly that man is primarily and essentially the receiver, not the producer, of truth. Christian experience is born of the <sequela Christi>. Moreover, <Logos> is constitutive of Christian faith, which shows that this faith, precisely insofar as it is faith, requires reason, and that theology is therefore located at the heart of experience.

We can draw three important conclusions from what he have just set forth:

(1) Every Christian is a potential theologian. That is to say, every authentically Christian experience contains the rational structures [<razones>] which constitute the principle of the theologian's task.

(2) It is not absolutely necessary that all Christians engage in theology in order to be Christians.

(3) Those who engage in theology—as a vocation and, therefore, also as a profession—can and must do so from within Christian experience lived in a tangible Christian community. This is the condition of a deepening reflection on the organic, systematic and critical character of the <Logos> inherent in experience.

One final observation in keeping with everything that we have said: In the history of Christian thought, it is Christian experience (together with the criteria of rigor and method, in the movement of <intellectus fidei> [understanding of/in faith] of the event of Revelation, Jesus Christ) that sooner or later has judged the quality of a given theological reflection. Conversely, we can say that the life of the saints (just think of Benedict, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola . . . ) has always given rise to a fruitful "school" of theology.

Translated by Adrian Walker

This article was taken from the Summer 1996 issue of "Communio: International Catholic Review". To subscribe write Communio, P.O. Box 4557, Washington, D.C. 20017-0557. Published quarterly.