Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Implications of "Religious Experience" for Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue: A Catholic Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Implications of "Religious Experience" for Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue: A Catholic Perspective

Article excerpt

The introduction of the notion of experience into what it means to become a Christian and to mature as a Christian complicates the current Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue. There are philosophical issues to negotiate--for instance, what is experience?--as well as the need to determine the place of experience in constructive theology and the interpretation of dogma and doctrine. The relationship between experience and faith is really not as simple as it seems. On the contrary, implicitly if not explicitly, experience is a category that is part of our common discourse and, for many, the privileged locus of religious meaning and practice. The assumption (I think) is that some measure of religious experience is or should be a formative dimension in authentic Christian life. Certainly, the burden on Kilian McDonnell and George Montague's book intended to foster such dialogue, Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries, (1) was to underscore the normativity of Spiritbaptism in its experiential mode for all converting Christians and all the sacramentally initiated. Likewise, the testimony of the Pentecostal movement has been to witness to the experiential power of God as known and received in the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charisms that attend that event and follow from it.

I propose to explore this experiential quality of Christian life informed in part by mutual convergence between the two traditions--despite their differences--on the coming of the Spirit and the Spirit's gifts in the life of the church and the Christian. In this light, I will address the following issues from the Catholic side: the notion of experience as a theological construct, experience in neo-scholastic Catholic theology of grace, experience in traditional Catholic spiritual theology, the turn to experience in contemporary Catholic theology of grace, and implications for Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue.

I. Experience as a Theological Construct

Donald Gelpi once referred to experience as a "weasel word," one that twists and wiggles in its many and variant meanings. (2) Yet, many theologies appeal to experience. For some, it is the major source and authority for the doing of theology. In our postmodern era, experience has also become the possession of various constituencies who interrupt mainstream discourse on experience with their hitherto-unheard voices, for example, various forms of liberation theology. Experience has become a Pandora's box for both theologian and philosopher. At the very least, in order to converse about experience, we need to exercise discipline with respect to the focus of our inquiry.

Using philosophical considerations, George Schner has identified four general rules to govern the notion: experience as construct, experience as intentional, experience as derivative, and experience as dialectical. (3) Roughly speaking, an experience, which includes elements of conscious apprehension, active participation, and passive undergoing, is a constructive process correlated with intentionality and derivation. In other words, as one mediates to oneself an experience (the constructive element), one does so with an intention--it is an experience of something--derived from the social, cultural, and linguistic context that forms one's life world. The dialectical dimension of experience refers to the "dynamic, self-altering, self-displacing, or inventive" (4) aspect of experience, in other words, its transformative dimension. So, for example, if one claims to experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit, this will involve the agent's construct of Spirit-baptism, dependent as it is on the recipient's intention and its particular ecclesial derivation. This will not negate the dialectical or transformative dimension of the experience in the event. What is ruled out is the notion that the experience is an unmediated given for the recipient.

Theologically, this places Christian experience within an incarnational and kerygmatic framework. …

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