# 302: Theology, Philosophy, and Experience

Story behind the Passage

Yesterday in a conversation about education and my long-time vision of building a “school” (whatever that means to people nowadays), I caught myself talking about some really basic axioms I have about human nature which are the basis of the practical solutions I am suggesting. My conversation partner was fiercely nodding when I said simple things like “human beings are striving towards happiness” and “curiosity is a human drive that enables them to explore different paths of getting there.” But I said all this without referring to all the thinkers that talked about this more than thousand years ago. After all, I had realized before that our very conversation was based on the fact that people commonly do not know that people said things like this before. They probably think that Richard David Precht and other TV philosophers have freshly invented these ideas.

After the conversation, however, I realized that, despite all the parallels between the “old” and the “new,” my thinking about the nature of human thinking and acting is not tightly in line with any of these philosophers. In fact, I also realized that the content of the concept we were discussing does not actually reflect the title I had given it. To be more specific: When I talk about a “liberal arts” education, I do mean different things by that than what ‘traditional’ (whatever that means) liberal arts colleges in the U.S. or elsewhere might offer. So, in the end, I am cuaght in the same trap as always whenever I try to use “familiar” names for thoughts in order to facilitate understanding by giving others the chance to build on something known. What this leads to at some point is that I say “Well, yes, I said it is like xyz but in many respects, it is not like this because abc…”

So, the logical inferrence is or question emerges: Why would I even start using these other concepts in the first place?

Do they really facilitate understanding given the above-described conversation dynamic?

And why do I obviously shy away from simply putting my own name on the thoughts that I have if I really know already that indeed, without any kind of bragging or arrogance, they are my thoughts, even though I do know where crucial elements of this thinking emerged from.

Maybe this is what is usually called “influences” when you read the short descriptions of artists and philosophers?

Maybe it is also the struggle between an artist and the scholar.

Maybe the two are incompatible with each other?

Now that I am already asking so many questions, let me add the most fundamental questions which are occupying my thinking. When I am using the gerund “are,” that really means “have been” for many years now but which are — otherwise I would not be writing about them right now — particularly prominent these days. Here is a selection:

1) What is the relationship between thinking and experience?

2) Is being an artist and being a scholar mutually exclusive?

3) What does education mean in our age?

4) Have we reached the end of seeking wisdom?

5) How can theology work without “mystical” experience?

Obviously, I placed the last question in this position for a reason — namely to finally lead over to today’s passage. For me, I guess, experience preceedes every kind of true understanding, even the quest for understanding itself. I tried different ways to gain real understanding many times but it does not work. If I do not experience something that triggers my curiosity, all the reading and lerning I do does not do much. Actually, I usually do not even do it at all. There is no curiosity in the sense that is needed for gaining this deep knowledge and ultimately wisdom that it takes for understanding life a bit better.

This tight interrelation between experience and learning, between knowledge and wisdom, is also what brought me to university in the first place. I did not know it at the time and I am just starting to realize this connection now but I think I was looking for wisdom in university, not for knowledge. The funny thing is: I think you need knowedge to find wisdom and I did find the latter via the univesity, but I do not think I found it in the university because universities are not meant to help you gain wisdom anymore — I guess. I still found it via the university because the university allowed me to have the experiences that then brought me wisdom (at least in a humble and limited way). And it did that, at least partly, by alllowing me to make sense of my experience and to explore it in a structured manner.

Still, without the experience, none of this would have been possible.

Now it would, of course, require an elaboration of what I mean by experience. That is a tricky and lengthy endeavor. Let me just briefly give you the quote from the etymology dictionary before moving on to the actual topic and the quote from today because experience in and of itself is only part of the equation there and should therefore not dominate the entire text since I am more interested in talking a little bit about the relationship between theology and philosophy.

experience, noun. late 14c., “observation as the source of knowledge; actual observation; an event which has affected one,” from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience” (13c.), from Latin experientia “a trial, proof, experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials,” from experientem (nominative experiens) “experienced, enterprising, active, industrious,” present participle of experiri “to try, test,” from ex “out of” (see ex-) + peritus “experienced, tested,” from PIE *per-yo-, suffixed form of root *per- (3) “to try, risk.” Meaning “state of having done something and gotten handy at it” is from late 15c. experience | Origin and meaning of experience by Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)

Obviously, the dictionary only goes back to more or less recent periods in the history of mankind. What is obvious here, however, is that experience is bound to sensual perception, especially seeing. I strongly want to emphasize that experience is something that involves all the senses human beings have at their disposal and all the rationality they can come up with. Overall, I do not have a brilliant definition of experience myself but one thing I definitely do not understand is how you can believe in something if there is no experience at all which you can rely on to “justify” your own belief. That is particularly puzzling to me when we talk about not just some belief but religious belief, i.e., the belief in God (whoever that is for you).

So, all this made me pick up a book about the topic in which the present essay, which was actually a talk, appears. I never read anything by Meister Eckhart himself but I became curious in him because I read some people who often referred to him. Eckhart Tolle, obviously, is one of the present-day examples. What always jumped at me in these writing was the word “mystic.” Do not worry, I am not going to open up another box now, even though that actually is at the center of what I am writing about as well — my inherent lack of understanding of how religious faith can exist without mysticism as religious experience.

My Learnings

“Der Glaube geht der wissenschaftlichen Einsicht voraus, aber er fordert sie zugleich.“ / “Faith precedes scientific insight but also challenges the latter at the same time.” One thing at the outset: translating theological or philosophical texts is the hardest thing to do. So, please, read carefully but be aware that I could have used at least three words above differently. Now, let us move on to the content. Obviously, the author here, by referring to Eckhart, is talking about faith as the requirement for scholarly iniquiry. And in the context of theology, I do think it does not work in any other way. Or can you imagine an agnostic or atheist making it through the study program of theology or even becoming a scholar of theology without having ANY faith in the Divine?

I cannot.

Still, Mieth is also saying that this entanglement is challenging because believing is not “knowing” in the scholarly sense of the term. But here it gets interesting for me and this is a thing that I have to talk about with theology scholars, actually. Theologists, if they believe, which, as we read above, is sort of an axiom, then they also know that we cannot know the TRUTH. And that is something that is quite demotivating, I think, at least for me when I am in the role of a scholar. What helps then, at least from my perspective, is to understand that scholarship can only help you gain knowledge, not truth in the ultimate sense. That is a problem again, however, because I do believe in the unity of faith and scholarship, meaning that, in the ultimate end, your spiritual belief in something will not oppose the scientific findings.

But how do we get there?

“Es ist die Aufgabe des Theologen, das Glaubenszeugnis mit den Gründen der Philosophen zu erhellen.“ / “It is the task of the theologist to shed light on religious testimony by employing philosophical reasoning.” I stronlgy believe in this but I do not understand how it could ever be otherwise. And I do not see this in history. It would be as if all the great philosophers in history had NOT TALKED about metaphysical things. We would have no philosophy. So, for me, the differentiation is impossible but the funny thing is: We have it in the university. There is a field called theology and one that is called philosophy. And since I have not formally studied any of these, I have no idea how you can separate them. Well, that is not true, actually. I see how you could, by means of selecting only certain thinkers, exclude theology from philosophy. But I do not see how the opposite would work. Then Theology would only be religion, i.e., reading the Bible literally and praying, without any academic analysis.

What is interesting about the sentence is this almost juridical, at least causal, approach to reasoning. I think, that is the key and obviously one of my favorite topics to ponder. Still, I would also disagree to the logic that is opened up here, even though I completely agree with the general statement that both need each other. What I mean is that philosophy to me cannot be reduced to rationality only, just like spirituality or faith are not merely nonrational. Maybe this is where the word mysticism functions as a placeholder for describing the in-between. But maybe not. Maybe mysticism is merely ascribed to the irrational?

What the article definitely conveys is a great general sense of how Eckhart approached theology. And here it is also crucial that he started with the word, with the text. This is something that people might judge as really “in-experiential” or “rational.” Still, for me, it is not. People have reported spiritual experiences as caused by reading. In fact, the only point why I am enforcing reading so much is its immanent spiritual quality which can only be experienced. The question then remains:

What for?

Why would you even want to experience faith?

That brings me to the beginning, I guess. In the passage, it says that the mutual collaboration between the two, theology and philosophy, works in the service of (“im Dienste von”) faith. In other words, faith is the beginning and the end, kind of a utilitarian approach. Even though I cannot explain it briefly here, if we assume that faith is an experience and that it requires experience, than the statement works. If the experience of faith is human JOY in and of itself, then it is no doubt aspirable for people. And if philosophy helps not only to make sense of this but get there — who would ever separate it from theology?

Except for “modern” university disciplinings.

Reflection Questions

1) Do you agree on the possibilities of “combining” theology and philosophy? Why/not?

2) What does spirituality mean to you?

3) Do you think that in 50 years from now, theology will still exist as a university subject? Why/not?



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