'School of Athens' by Artist Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

The Lens of Experience

During a historical moment in which “experience” is questioned, ignored, or even refuted, a three-day seminar with some of academia’s most incisive minds yielded fruitful collaboration.
Amy Sapenoff

During a historical moment in which “experience” is questioned, ignored, or even refuted, a three-day seminar with some of academia’s most incisive minds yielded fruitful collaboration. Not a seminar for theoretical gymnastics, the myriad sessions prompted practical “open dialogue” probing of themes deeply intertwined with experience, such as being as “gift;” the centrality of experience as a link to the Ultimate in Giussani’s thought; feminism; science and scientism...

According to Dr. David L. Schindler, Dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, “Experience is an omnipresent issue–everyone appeals to experience.” For precisely this reason, experience was at the center of the John Paul II Institute’s recent conference, entitled “The Nature of Experience: Issues in Science, Culture, and Theology,” presented December 3–5 in Washington, D.C. The conference brought together faculty members from the Institute, as well as other prominent theologians, to engage in a discussion that sought to identify the theological implications and relevance of experience.

Open Dialogue
Even from the perspective of a lay spectator with minimal background in theology, it was evident that this conference was not standard academic fare. Much more than a series of presentations over various papers prepared by the participants, the conference was a conversation generated by the question of experience. Dr. Schindler commented that this format helped to ensure that the conference was not reduced to an occasion for theorizing, but instead was an occasion to engage questions, and that it could avoid the problem found at many other conferences, where “everyone speaks, but nobody discusses.” This novel structure allowed the dramatic nature of the philosophical and theological content to be drawn to the surface in a way that brought energy and gravity to the conference.
It was impossible to ignore the participants and presenters clamoring to ask questions. At one point, after a session had concluded and while most attendees were taking a coffee break, the conference participants had drawn chairs to the front of the lecture hall in order to keep the conversation going. Their discussion was open, but impassioned and intense–perhaps surprisingly so, especially for what might be expected at an academic conference. The intensity stemmed in part from a difference which emerged between what seemed to be two basic approaches to the themes in question. One approach–represented by Dr. Schindler, Institute professors, and other thinkers associated with the Communio school of thought–could be described as understanding of being in terms of gift, and as greatly influenced by the thought of John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI and Monsignor Luigi Guissani. Such an approach also sees a profound unity between human experience and Christian experience, born from our being constituted by relation to God at the core of our being. A different approach was maintained by some of the other participants including, most notably, Fr. Martin Rhonheimer of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Fr. Rhonheimer and others spoke of man’s relation to God as pertaining to a level other than the very constitutive depths of man’s essential being, and often posited a greater distinction between human and Christian experience.

The structure of open dialogue was invaluable for carrying the weight of the issues being dealt with, as the differences at hand proved to be delicate. One place where the difference became clearer was in the discussion which followed a presentation by Fr. Antonio Lopez, FSCB, of his paper, “Growing Human: Experience of God and Experience of Man in Luigi Giussani.” His paper articulated the centrality of experience in Giussani’s thought, explaining that, for Giussani, to speak of original experience is to affirm God for what He is: everything. Experience allows man to discover truth because it allows him to see the link between signs in his experience and the Ultimate. This unity was summarized when Fr. Lopez stated, “For Giussani, every original human experience is either a religious one, or it is not an experience in the first place: ultimately, experience is the living affirmation of God as that ‘unitary meaning which nature’s objective and organic structure calls the human conscience to recognize,’” quoting Giussani’s Risk of Education. Fr. Lopez developed this unity of experience through his explanation of work and prayer, drawing on St. Benedict’s maxim of “Ora et Labora.” Prayer is man’s free acknowledgment of the Mystery, a binding of his reason and affection, which recognizes that everything is given. In work, man becomes one with the reality given to him by fulfilling a project that bears witness to the original impetus, and thus responds to the Logos in a way that transforms the cosmos.

Physical presence. In addition to Fr. Lopez, several others commented on profound relationships between theology and a real experience of faith. Fr. José Granados, DCJM, presented “Body as the Place for the Experience with God,” which emphasized experience as exploration of the world, which is deeply connected to the body as the place where truth is discerned. It is through bodily experience that our senses are linked with the transcendent. Put succinctly, our senses open us up to an encounter with God in that they indicate receptivity to reality and make us aware of our relationship with our origin. He concluded that true experience takes the form of memory by reminding us of this origin.

Dr. Margaret McCarthy’s paper referred to the experience of Christian witness in comparison with feminism, demonstrating how the truth of experience can be distorted in modern thought. An authentic witness communicates the fact that the Absolute becomes present in history. A witness, therefore, demonstrates an objective fact drawn from experience of Christ through the good, true, and beautiful. In modernity, experience tends to be reduced to something merely sentimental, without reference to an objective truth. For women, this means that their experience is often translated into terms of domination, which lends itself to a defensive and ideological reaction. This perversion of experience causes women to define themselves in terms of empowerment and not in terms of their original needs. It is only in Christ that experience becomes the hope for something new, culminating in a genuine understanding of oneself in relation to one’s Origin.

The Good and the True
Other aspects of experience were also of interest. The session entitled “Experience of Nature and Moral Experience,” with Dr. David Crawford of the Institute and Dr. Steven Long of Ave Maria University, attempted to ascertain the nature of man’s experience of the Good. The discussion proved to be on-going, as it generated vigorous debate during the question and answer period. The relationship between science and experience was also explored on several occasions. Dr. Michael Hanby of the Institute and Dr. Philip Sloan of Notre Dame presented “Experience and Experiment: The Question of Method in Science.” It was followed by “Experience, Philosophy, and the Verification of Truth in Science” with Dr. Adrian Walker, Associate Editor of the English language edition of Communio and Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, of Providence College, who demonstrated how scientists verify the truth by presenting his research on telomere theory. The final session included Dr. Nicholas J. Healy III, presenting “Liturgy, Sacrament, and Christian Experience,” together with Rev. Martin Rhonheimer’s presentation of “Faith, Secularity, and the Experience of the World,” which addressed the theological understanding of the secular sphere and the sacred sphere as they pertain to one another.

Unpacking “being.” In his concluding remarks on Saturday evening, Dr. Schindler noted with gratitude that such a discussion was possible and essential. He insisted that “disagreement–however vigorous–can be the expression of the truth of community.” It was apparent throughout the weekend that the dialogue taking place was firmly planted at the center of a community, that is, the Church. This served as a striking reminder that the Church is a living and breathing reality, still in the process of being understood after 2,000 years. The conference could have proved abstract, and even impenetrable, considering the language being used and the complexity of the issues. What was most helpful were the constant indications that the “experience” being discussed was the same experience which has shaped my life. This became increasingly evident as I turned to friends who study at the John Paul II Institute to help me understand the nuances of the discussion and to frame it in more accessible terms. What always remained at the core of the discussion was the question of man’s relation to Christ, simply understood from slightly varying viewpoints. The question of “being” was a question of “me.” “Man’s relation to Christ,” understood through the lens of experience, was my relation to Christ, as witnessed in my own experience.